Friday, September 21, 2018
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What happened at Red Lake?
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Red Lake students prepare to begin classes next week

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Red Lake students and their families had to go through metal detectors as they entered Red Lake High School for an orientation program Thursday. Many of the students hadn't been in the building since the March 21 shootings. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
More than 100 students and their parents attended an orientation at Red Lake High School on Thursday. For many it was their first time back in the school building since the school shootings last March. Ten people died that day, including a school security guard, a teacher and five students. School officials praised returning kids for overcoming their fears. Many students and parents said they felt nervous, but safe coming back into the building.

Red Lake, Minn. — Red Lake students were greeted by staff members ready to help them work out their fall class schedule. It's something most didn't get around to last spring.

When Red Lake High School reopened in the weeks after the shootings, about two-thirds of the students stayed at home. Jane Benais' son, Frank, was one of them. Frank only attended one day of school last spring. Now, he's a senior and is ready to come back. Benais says her son has a lot of catching up to do.

"I'm just concerned about him, because he missed out on so much school," said Benais. "I'm going to push him to his limit, where he will graduate."

Kids coming back to school have plenty of reminders of the violence that occurred there. They're greeted by metal detectors at the front door and armed security guards in the halls. Not all of the school district's new security measures are ready. There are still more surveillance cameras to install. Workers are still busy fitting classroom doors with deadbolt locks.

Benais was nervous about coming into the building. But she says she felt better once she got inside.

"I feel the kids will be safe," she said. "I don't think anybody else will do this, what happened last year. I don't think anything bad will happen to our kids. We all just got to keep pushing them to go do what you have to. Everything will be okay."

The big challenge for school administrators has been to get kids back in school. Already, more than 20 students have asked to be on homebound status. That means a teacher brings work to them at their home. Close to 50 students have transferred to neighboring school districts. Officials say that number is expected to rise.

Still, high school principal Chris Dunshee says he's optimistic about the school year.

"I'm feeling pretty positive about it," Dunshee said. "It looks like the people that are here are really involved and they're going about the business of getting the kids registered for classes. The parents that I've talked to have been very positive, so I'm feeling very good about it."

Many students say they're looking forward to getting back to normal -- reconnecting with friends and getting back into their favorite sports. Nick Johnson is a soft-spoken 11th grader from Ponemah. Johnson says a lot of kids just want to put March 21 behind them.

"I'm just thinking about this year," he said. "It's not the past."

Nick's mom, Vickie Johnson, says she offered to let Nick transfer to another school district if he wanted. She says he insisted on coming back to Red Lake.

"He's feeling alright about it," said Johnson. "He's pretty confident, so I'm there right behind him, too, to support him and be there for him."

What happened last March affected teachers and staff at Red Lake as much as the students. School officials say several teachers have resigned because of the shootings. Three high school staff members are on unpaid medical leave until psychologists say they're ready to return.

Many teachers say they're anxious to get back to their classrooms and reconnect with students. Janet Nelson is a health teacher. Her classroom is near the section of the school where most of the victims died. Nelson says at first she felt uncomfortable coming back into the school.

"It's different on different days," said Nelson. "Some days you come in and you feel just fine, and other days it's, depending on how many people are in the building at one time or whatever, it can get a little spooky. But lately it's just felt really good to be in the building."

It's anybody's guess as to how many students will show up for classes when they resume on Tuesday. One school official said he expected between half and two-thirds of kids would be there. That first school day will begin with a traditional healing ceremony.

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