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What happened at Red Lake?
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Red Lake students prepare to head back to school

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Red Lake High School Principal Chris Dunshee says he believes many students are ready to get back to school, despite the trauma many experienced from the March 21st school shootings. The school hosts an open house Sept. 1-2. Regular classes begin Sept. 6. Some are concerned that enrollment may be down this fall. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Students on the Red Lake Indian Reservation will head back to school Thursday. The first couple of days this week will serve as an open house, where teachers and students can get reacquainted. Classes will begin next week. Many high school students haven't been back to school since last March. That's when teenager Jeff Weise went on a shooting rampage, killing nine people before taking his own life. As a new school year begins, the Red Lake community is filled with a sense of both apprehension and optimism. The big question is whether students will show up for school.

Red Lake, Minn. — There's lots of activity in the halls of Red Lake High School. Workers are busy painting, cleaning and installing new security locks on classroom doors. As Principal Chris Dunshee walks the white cinderblock corridors to check on the work, he can't help but pass by the places where Jeff Weise caused so much terror.

"Now when he came in, he came through this front door right here," said Dunshee, pointing to the entrance. "And this is where the security guard confronted him, and then he walked up this hall."

School officials say students are bound to get uncomfortable memories as they return to these hallways. Chris Dunshee shows no visible emotion as he retraces Jeff Weise's steps.

"Most of the shooting took place in this area here," said Dunshee.

He points to a wall of sheetrock that blocks off the hallway. Behind it is the classroom area where a teacher and five students died. That area of the school will be off limits until remodeling is completed sometime next year. It's being converted to administrative offices.

Chris Dunshee's life changed the moment after the shootings. He was at the helm of a school facing an unimaginable crisis. Traumatized students didn't come back to school when it reopened. A few weeks later, Dunshee says, that stress led to a heart attack.

Now, Dunshee faces the same challenge: getting kids to feel safe enough to come back to school. Dunshee says he thinks many are now ready to come back. But he knows some will not be.

"I think because of what happened last spring and the attendance as it was afterwards, we're of course concerned about it," he said. "The only thing we can do is to take the measures that we feel will help, and hopefully the kids will come back."

The school district has focused its efforts on a list of about 150 students who either didn't come back to school last spring, or who attended only sporadically. The goal was to make direct contact with each of those students. In the past few weeks, teachers, parents and elders fanned out across the reservation to visit them at home.

This summer, Red Lake teenagers were also offered mental health counseling. Chris Jourdain was part of a team of counselors who sought out kids over the summer. He figures he talked with more than 100 students. Jourdain says he thinks most kids are handling it pretty well and will return to school.

"All we can do is try to tell them, you know, to focus your thoughts on, not so much the sadness," said Jourdain. "It's okay to remember it, but you don't want to go sink into depression... I know there's probably not going to be some kids there. I realize that, I accept that, and I even understand that."

Jourdain says he's been impressed with how the Red Lake community has pulled together in the wake of the tragedy.

"It's up to us," said Jourdain. "It's not up to anybody else, it's not up to any government grants or anything like that. It's up to us to overcome. And I think we can do it."

In a modest home in Redby, on the south shore of Red Lake, Preston Graves prepares to open his small convenience store just across the yard. He has two sons, both in high school.

"They're anxious, anxious to go back (to school)," said Graves. "Looking forward to it, in fact."

Graves says there's still a lot of apprehension and uncertainty in the community. It's mostly because the FBI's investigation into the shooting isn't finished yet. So far, one teen has been arrested. Seventeen-year-old Louis Jourdain -- the son of the tribal chairman -- is suspected of helping plan the attack. Rumors abound that other kids were involved, too. Graves says his boys have done a good job of dealing with all the trauma.

"They know it's there, I mean, it will always be there," Graves said. "You're not going to get away from it. Life goes on. Got to move on. And that's the way they've been handling themselves all summer. And there ain't much more you can do. If you want to dwell on it, then you got a problem."

Graves' youngest son, Reggie, was a ninth grader last year. Most of the shooting victims were in his grade. On the day of the shootings, Reggie had been in the classroom where most of the killing happened. But just minutes before Weise entered the school, Reggie got a pass to go to a classroom next door.

Reggie has been stuck with the horrible images he saw that day. He's lost sleep and shed lots of tears since then. Still, Reggie says the shooting is something that's rarely talked about among his friends.

"I really don't like to talk about it with my friends, because I don't know if they'd still break down about it or not," said Reggie, "because it just brings back the memories that they had. You still try not to bring it up, just try to do what you're there to do, like to go to basketball practice, football practice. Just get that done with."

Reggie says he has mixed feelings about going back to school. He says he's looking forward to seeing his friends. But three of his closest buddies were killed that day, including his best friend, Chase Lussier. Reggie says he's aware of eight other friends who have transferred to other school districts.

Still, Reggie says he's ready to go back to school, thanks to the help he's gotten from his family.

"I had my dad and brother to support me, so it's been kind of easy, people you can talk to," said Reggie. "I'd just, like, tell them what happened, but I wouldn't tell them what was, like, in my mind, because no one else knows what you're thinking. In a situation like that, there's very little people that know what you're thinking and going through."

School officials say some kids have transferred to other school districts in the region, but so far not in big numbers. Some students are choosing to come back to Red Lake. Jim King was attending high school in Bemidji when the shootings occurred. He says the incident gave him a reason to come back.

"Just to try to be there for my friends," said King. "If they ever have hard times, you know, or, just to be there with them, to try to show other kids, you know, that I'm not afraid to go back, you know, so everyone else should be too, because I think the school system is trying real hard to make it safe."

King says he's been in contact with lots of other kids over the summer. He says he's noticed a subtle but fundamental change in the behavior of some. King says since the shootings, young people have been treating each other with more respect.

"From what I see with all my friends I hang out with, you know, they're a little slower to react violently or with hateful words," King said. "I think they're just, more watching what you're saying, more sensitive to everything."

King says despite the horror of the tragedy, it's led to other positive changes. He says tribal members and government leaders are paying more attention to the needs of kids.

"I've heard, you know, out of something bad comes something better," said King. "So I think that's going to hold true for us."

Red Lake High School students will see some changes when they get back to school. They'll no longer be allowed to leave campus during their lunch hour. Backpacks will be banned. And there will be armed security guards roaming the halls.