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United Methodists experience firsthand trauma of school shootings

 


United Methodists experience firsthand trauma of school shootings

April 14, 2005       

A UMNS Report
By Sandra Brands*

Until a teenage boy went on a shooting spree in March, few outsiders paid much attention to the people of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota.

Molly Miron did. As editor of the Bemidji Pioneer, Miron has covered the reservation and its people for years.

John Robinson, dentist and administrator of the reservation hospital, and George Stowe, executive director of the North Star Chapter of the Red Cross, did as well. They both work side by side with the tribe to provide care and treatment throughout the year.

And Deb Brooks, a special education teacher at Red Lake High, not only worked with and for the people of Red Lake, she now shares one of their most recent experiences: the trauma and grief of trying to understand what would make a 16-year-old boy pick up a rifle and shoot family, friends and protectors.

All four have something else in common: all are members of Bemidji United Methodist Church and were on site as the events of March 21 at Red Lake Reservation unfolded.

After killing his grandfather, a retired tribal policeman, and his grandfather’s companion, student Jeff Weise armed himself with a shotgun and two pistols and, shortly before 3 p.m. that day, killed eight other people and wounded seven more before killing himself.

“My first experience was hearing what sounded like gunshot,” Brooks said. “My kids went racing to the door. Someone was yelling, ‘Fight! Fight!’ The kids listened to me for a change when I told them to stay back. I told them it sounded like it could be gunfire, and to get into lock down.”

Lock down, Brooks explained, is a state of emergency in the event intruders or snipers enter the school with intent to harm. Doors are locked and students are ordered to take cover away from windows and doors and under desks.

“There’s a whole wall of outside windows from waist up in my classroom and two windows in the other corner of the room by the door,” she said. “I told my kids to get someplace down on the floor where they wouldn’t be visible from any windows.”

In the wake of the 1999 killings at Columbine High School and other school shootings, teachers are supposed to keep their doors locked at all times, Brooks explained. But “it’s almost impossible to do that, especially in special education, because the students go from classroom to classroom during the day.”

The doors, which do not lock on the inside, must be locked from outside with a key. Brooks, like other teachers that day, immediately stepped into the hallway to lock the door.

“I don’t even remember if I looked down the hallway,” she said. “I was already in an unreal state of mind. All we could hear in our room was gunfire. We didn’t hear anyone screaming. You could hear people running in the hall and you didn’t know who it was, and then eventually, it came over the intercom that it was over and we were to evacuate the building.

“It seemed like it went on for a long time. Evidently, it was 10 or 15 minutes,” she said.

Emergency response

Robinson was in the middle of a dental clinic when he looked out his window and saw an ambulance race toward the hospital. Moments later, he learned there had been a shooting at the high school. By the time he arrived in the emergency room, the scene was frenzied. Doctors, EMTs, nurses, maintenance workers and housekeeping staff had poured in, ready to help.

Normally, Robinson said, two physicians work in the emergency room. A third doctor and a nurse practitioner work in the outpatient clinic. While the Red Lake Hospital, part of the federal public health system, has urgent care and a small number of beds, its care tends to emphasize clinics and preventive medicine.

As more and more victims were raced to the hospital, the emergency room began to fill. Robinson estimates there were dozens of people, with at least three people working with each victim at any one time. “We didn’t know how many to expect. As one victim came in, another went out.”

Like all hospitals after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Red Lake Hospital had created a uniform disaster plan to deal with emergencies, Robinson said. “We have been doing drills, but this cemented (the necessary response) in our minds. But we never really thought it would be something like this.”

The first 20 minutes after a shooting are crucial, Robinson said. A medical team must try to stabilize a patient in that brief window of time. Ambulances from surrounding communities raced to the scene, and two helicopters and a fixed-wing plane had been called in to transport the most seriously wounded victims to North County Hospital in Bemidji, 35 miles away, or farther, to MeritCare Children’s Hospital in Fargo, about 170 miles away.

“As the events unfolded, we started calling people back in to work—some who were on vacation,” Robinson said. Maintenance and housekeeping staff helped keep families out of the emergency room.

A high school student called Miron almost immediately, voice shaking, to alert her about the shootings. She checked with the police and the district superintendent, then heard the calls for help on the scanner. Within the hour, she was at the high school, covering the story.

“The whole episode took about 10 minutes,” she said. By the time she arrived on the scene, people were reaching out to one another. “I had hugs everywhere I went. People wanted to comfort.”

By 5 p.m., county emergency management had called the Red Cross, asking it to provide food to the families, hospital staff and law enforcement officials, Stowe said. A call went out to volunteers, he said.

“It so happened that all the volunteers who arrived were from the Bemidji United Methodist Church,” he said. Meals were prepared at the church and sent to the reservation.

By 7 p.m., volunteers were serving food and coffee to those in need.

“There’s a great deal of emotion and caring in that situation,” Stowe said. “We had families coming in, and we delivered food to families throughout the early part of the evening. Your heart just breaks for what they’ve gone through.”

In the aftermath

More shocks were in store for the people of Red Lake. Days after the shooting, the tribal chairman’s son, Louis Jourdain, 16, was taken into custody by the FBI and charged with conspiracy in connection with the shootings.

There is continued speculation that more arrests will follow. According to news reports, authorities suspect up to 20 teens may have known about Weise’s plans and as many as four more may have helped plan the attack. Students have been questioned, and computers have been seized.

And after the announcement that the school would reopen April 11, the FBI revealed it had received information that there might be a gun on school property. No gun was found and school opened as planned.

Any community would be reeling in shock, and for the people of Red Lake, the descent of the outside world on their small, private community has only added to their grief. The interest of the politicians and the media has been greeted with some cynicism and seems to have opened old wounds.

“The people (on the reservation) are naturally distrustful (of outsiders),” Miron said.

“Think of it as a little town that people from all over the world have descended upon.”

Robinson agrees. “The Indian people feel a certain skepticism about outpouring of good will right now. Is (that good will) going to be there in a year, two years?”

It is a rhetorical question echoed by many who have worked in and for the small community.

Successful organizations like the Red Cross have been there for years and built a long-term relationship with the tribe, Stowe said. “People in Red Lake are very private individuals, but I will tell you that they are among the most gracious individuals on the face of the earth.”

Robinson suggests people who want to offer help should be patient and sensitive. “Be ready for the long haul. It’s overwhelming right now—all the national interest and the grief.”

Long-term support will be necessary, Miron said. Various funds have been set up to help the tribe in its recovery. According to Miron, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation is managing all donations as well as matching contributions. Details are available at http://www.nwmf.org/html/home.htm.

Immediately after the shootings, teachers and staff began meeting to plan for reopening the school and to address concerns and needs. “We’ve (the teachers) been meeting almost every day since this happened,” Brooks said. “If we weren’t meeting at the school, we were meeting at a funeral or a wake.

“The parents wanted to thank us for keeping what kids we could safe. The school board wanted to thank us. Everyone was opening their arms, wanting to adopt us in their families,” she said.

“My prayers are focused on this tragic event that something good comes out of it, something good for the Red Lake people,” Stowe said.

For Brooks, some good is already coming out of the tragedy.

“I’ve seen a community that has experienced a lot of dysfunction and anger,” she said, “and I’ve seen people pull together and really back each other up. I’m so thankful and so relieved that the community has pulled together and they’re supporting one another.”

That support is so important, Brooks said. “When a school goes through this, the first need is to be with everyone who was in that building and be able to share your individual experience. You want to know where everyone was, what they experienced right down to the grisly details.

“It feels morbid,” she admitted, “but it’s really important. I haven’t met anyone (who went through this) who didn’t want to do that.”

Brutal images continue to haunt Brooks, keeping her awake.

“You have good days and bad days,” she said. “You have nights when you’re so exhausted that you sleep really well, other nights when you’ll sleep fitfully and wake up. You’ll be haunted by what you don’t know as well as what you do know (about the shootings).

“I just have to be prepared to go with how I am (feeling) at any given time,” she said.

Traditional values

The sensational nature of the high school shootings has brought Red Lake Reservation, and to a lesser extent, the Native American community, to international attention. The shootings are symptomatic of deep problems that have been part of the Native American community for years, said the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the United Methodist Church’s Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

A member of the Choctaw tribe, Wilson said problems such as alcoholism, diabetes, suicide, unemployment and chemical abuse occur in higher percentages in the Native American community. Like the Ojibwe elders, he believes the loss of traditions contributes to the low self-esteem many Native American youth experience.

“There are a lot of self-esteem issues facing the young people because of the displacement of native culture,” he said. “Our culture defines who we are, and if all you see is the negative view of Native American culture, it can lead to a loss of self-worth.

“For most native communities and reservations, community is very much about who we are,” Wilson said. “For Jeff Weise to feel left out of that community—that’s not the norm. Community and family are a very big part of Native American culture.”

In stories published since the Red Lake shootings, tribal elders have echoed Wilson’s statements, saying that if children had more connection to their traditions, the high school shootings would not have happened. 

“If you see the traditions, learn the culture, it becomes a very positive thing,” Wilson said.

Brooks agrees with those who suggest that more connection to their cultural traditions might have prevented this and other tragedies. “The kids are quite often not as closely attached to the traditions as the elders,” she said. “It’s a really tough world to grow up in for youth today; things are so different.”

She suggests that the Internet has become a substitute for interest in the community. “When you live in an isolated community like Red Lake, the Internet is a way to get out. There’s not a lot to do in Red Lake, and I hope that’s one of things that will change.”

Some changes are already under way, she said, changes that will help youth in the community connect to their traditional culture and give them chances to take part in experiential activities such as building a sweat lodge or getting to know elders by helping in the community.

“The elders are pretty distraught with what’s happening with young people there,” she said. “It’s really, really sad for them because they’re seeing all their culture blow away in the wind.”

The Rev. Don Goodwin, pastor of Pine Bend United Methodist Church on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, agrees. “If you’re brought up with respect for the elders, yourself, your people, if you’re taught that the Creator put us here for a reason, that you’re a gift, you do not destroy that gift from the Creator.”

*Brands is the editor for print and electronic publications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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