Red Lake braces for an uneasy anniversaryby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Red Lake tribal officials have declared Tuesday a 'Day of Remembrance'. The day marks the one year anniversary of the school shootings on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. On March 21, 2005 teenager Jeff Weise killed nine people and wounded seven others before taking his own life. It was the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Tribal members are reacting to the anniversary in different ways. Some will gather quietly to remember the tragedy and the loved ones lost. Others are dreading the anniversary and are still trying to forget what happened that day.
Red Lake, Minn. — There won't be any classes at Red Lake High School Tuesday. Tribal government offices and programs will be shut down. There's no big public gathering planned on the reservation to remember the tragedy. Survivors of many of the shooting victims will host private memorial dinners for family and friends.
Tribal member Darrell Auginaush says he and many others are still reeling from the horror of what happened last year.
"Some are really hurting," said Auginaush. "They don't even want this day to come. This is a scary day for a lot of people. It's a day that the hearts are going to be rebroken for some people. I think the community is just now starting to realize the effect of what has happened."
The shootings hit close to home for Auginaush. His nephew, Ryan, was one of the students injured in the gunfire. Auginaush is a devout Christian and for the past year, he's taken his Christian message to dozens of Red Lake families willing to accept his comfort and counseling.
Auginaush is planning a Christian memorial service for Red Lake at a church in Bemidji Tuesday evening.
He says he's especially worried about the children of Red Lake.
"I think our kids are really hurting, bad," he said. "I think there's a loss of innocence in our community, security, trust. It's going to take years to rebuild. Generations. My nephew is never going to be the same. I'm never going to be the same. But I have hope that we can get through this."
At the Red Lake Humanities Center, the friends and family of shooting victim Chase Lussier gathered for a traditional ceremony a few days before the anniversary. A group of Ojibwe spiritual leaders from a tribe in Canada came to Red Lake to perform the ceremony. Witnesses say the 15-year-old was a hero who tried to defend other students before he was killed.
Red Lake School Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait who attended the ceremony, said students are generally doing well, but attendance has dropped by about 15 percent in the past few weeks as the anniversary date approaches.
"I think a lot of the students have handled it very good, but we all suffer," said Desjarlait. "We all remember in our own way."
Desjarlait says the school shootings continue to affect his staff. Some teachers are struggling with emotional trauma. Some are dealing with depression. Desjarlait says four teachers have taken medical leave in just the past two weeks. That's happened to about a dozen teachers since last March. Even high school principal Chris Dunshee is taking some time off. He's gone for the rest of the school year.
Desjarlait says he took his own mental health break following the shootings. He says he still feels the pain of the trauma.
"Some days I just wake up and say, 'I'm not going to work today, I'm not going to work,'" Desjarlait said. "I don't feel good, you know. I still get dreams at night, you know, what happened. And, like March 21, I won't be here. I'm going to be in the cities. It's just something that I have to do as part of my own continued wellness."
A few kids dropped out of school after the shootings. Dozens transferred to other districts off the reservation. Attendance at the district's Alternative Learning Centers located away from the high school is at an all time high, school officials say.
The Alternative Learning Centers allow Wendy Johnson's teenagers to get an education without going back into the high school building. Johnson lives in Redby. She says the one year anniversary of the shootings is something she's tried not to think about. Johnson isn't sure what she'll do when the date rolls around.
"I know Tuesday, I'm sure I'm going to be pretty emotional," said Johnson. "A lot of things are going to come back. I'm just not looking at it right now until it actually, the day is here."
Johnson has horrible memories of the day of the shootings. Her teenage daughter was in a classroom directly across from where most of the killing happened. Johnson says her daughter tried to go back to school after it reopened. But the trauma and stress was too much for her.
Johnson's younger son wasn't in school that day, but he's been affected, too. She says in just the past month, he's begun having nightmares. Johnson pulled him out of school and plans to enroll him in the alternative school.
"I'm just really apprehensive," said Johnson. "You know, the big fear is, is it going to happen again? We don't know that. That would be my biggest concern is, we don't want a repeat of last year."
Since the shootings, the district has added more and better trained security guards. There are now surveillance cameras throughout the building. Students are no longer allowed to leave campus during lunchtime.
James King, Jr., who is 16 years old, is vice president of his junior class and managing editor of the school newspaper, the Red Lake Times. King is getting ready to put out a paper this week. He says it will include some uplifting reflections on what happened last year.
King says high school students and teachers have developed a unique bond over the past year. They've gotten through the tough times by supporting each other. But King says there's a lot of apprehension over the one year anniversary.
"There's a lot of people nervous, you know," King said. "It just seems so recent in a lot of people's minds. It's just going to be a very haunting feeling, you know, to know what happened exactly one year ago."
King says he'll spend the day with his family. He plans to attend some of the memorial dinners for those who were killed.
"I'm nervous, just a bit scared," he said. "I don't know why I'm scared. It's kind of like an anxious feeling. I guess I'm anxious to hurry up and get this day behind us and keep moving up, you know?"
There was talk on the reservation of having a large community feast to recognize what happened on March 21. Instead, the Red Lake Tribal Council decided to honor the privacy of victim's families. The council distributed money to those families to help pay for their memorial events.