Security Solutions: Red Alert

All is routine, as I'm riding home from a day of budget cutting and project planning when the car radio announces the first sketchy reports.

A shooting in Red Lake. High school. Fatalities. Kids wounded.

I call our communications director. Has she heard? She confirms: This will eat us alive tomorrow — reporters asking, “Could it happen here? What are you doing to prevent it?”

Over the next few days, details drizzle in: He was a loner, a “Gothic,” absent from classes, dad gone, mom infirm. Too tall for his age, alienated, talked to a few friends about his grand plot — even a few adults — but no one put it together to say, “Son, you need help.”

I recall my own sheltered childhood, growing up with all the advantages a child can have. Then I think of Jeff Weise. His dad left his life early, his stepfather unable to reach him. His mom has been hospitalized since 1999 from a head injury. Jeff bounced around, living with friends, relatives and foster parents. He found a home on the Internet. A nest of like-minded lost souls finding solace in Adolf Hitler's easy answer to life's complicated trappings: get rid of them all.

But that's not what took my day away. It was the kids. As an administrator, my first concern is how the kids are dealing with this.

With the third-largest population of Native American students in Minnesota, St. Paul had to come to grips with a community of which we are keenly aware but not necessarily privy to. We learned about the relationships that bind most Native Americans. It was impossible to find someone who wasn't affected by this tragedy. The cohesiveness displayed and the common language spoken in the days that followed was awakening. We became attuned to a silent current of community, something hidden beneath the Indian names that run through our student databases.

In St. Paul, we have fire drills and lockdowns. We send our police to active shooter training and harp on threat assessment. But there is little that compares to the impact of 10 gunshots in northern Minnesota.

The problem is the loss of our footing. We grow complacent, like walking on old wooden piers that suddenly snap: the shock of splashing into the cold water of youthful death. And we are left to guide these youth out of this numbing water.

We watch for copycats. We look for silent kids holding it in. We ask about sleep habits and try to get their lives back on routine. We offer our time.

Central security is alert to unusual calls and alarms. We work with police to screen the “potentials” out there.

And we do internal checks. We think about our own kids, some just starting, some beyond school age. We wonder how we would react to a news report that talked of our school and a shooting in the same sentence. The fright. The paralysis. The gasping for air as we reach out and form the magic words, making the offer of a lifetime: “Can I help you?”

Quinn, AIA, REFP, is executive director of operations for St. Paul Public Schools, Minn.

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