FROM THE ASHES: Trinity officials rally students, parents as answers slowly come
With ashes on his head and in one of his schools, and with a former administrator behind bars, Dickinson Catholic Schools President Steve Glasser told students, parents and community members Wednesday that it’s time to move forward after Monday’s fire at Trinity High School.
Glasser and Monsignor Patrick Schumacher thanked community members for their support during a forum following an Ash Wednesday Mass service at Queen of Peace Catholic Church and spoke about the plan Dickinson Catholic Schools leadership has outlined in the wake of the fire.
“In difficult times, ordinary people do extraordinary things,” Glasser said. “Everyone in this church today is extraordinary, so just imagine what we can do. I want to thank everyone in our community for their help, prayers and thoughts. At the end of the day, we will be better and we will be stronger.”
Schumacher, who also serves as chairman of the Dickinson Catholic Schools Board, spoke about former Trinity Principal Thomas J. Sander, who was charged Tuesday with arson and endangerment by fire. Both charges are Class B felonies.
Sander, 30, was taken into custody by the Dickinson Police Department after he was questioned about the fire. On Wednesday morning, Judge Dann Greenwood ordered Sander to be held at the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center on a $500,000 cash bond.
Schumacher said Wednesday that Sander’s employment with Trinity has been terminated.
Sander met with staff Feb. 10 to say he was not planning to return to Trinity next school year, Schumacher said. It is unknown if the school declined to renew the first-year principal’s contract.
Trinity’s misplaced students will attend classes beginning Monday at a number of public schools around Dickinson, and also in the basement of one of the Catholic churches, Glasser said.
Junior high students will be placed in Prairie Rose Elementary. Freshmen will attend class at Berg Elementary. Sophomores will move to Hagen Junior High. Juniors and seniors will attend class in the Pine Room at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
TMI has offered space in its building for Trinity’s administration offices.
Sander allegedly set fire to contents of a file cabinet in the main office vault, according to charges filed Wednesday in Stark County court. The main administrative offices was the part of the school most greatly damaged by the blaze.
The classroom solution is expected to last through the end of the school year. Perhaps longer.
‘It hurts deep’
Trinity senior Jillian Stockert, a member of the school’s girls basketball team, said Wednesday that the news of Sander’s arrest -- on top of first learning of the fire -- came as quite a shock.
“It’s been hard,” Stockert said. “We found out about (Sander’s arrest) after basketball practice on Tuesday at Dickinson State. We were all very surprised. Being a senior, it kind of feels like everything is just ending sooner.”
During his address, Glasser said he has already sent a request to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction asking for a waiver so that the current week of missed school will not need to be made up later this year.
The news drew applause and cheers from Trinity students.
“It’s only Wednesday and the fire happened on Monday, but it feels like this has all been going on for two weeks,” said Trinity senior Austin Deichert, president of the student council. “The whole thing has been surreal. First, we heard it was just a tiny little fire at the school and then it turns into all this. To think that this all came from someone in a leadership position, that hurts deep. You don’t expect something like that. We’re all just extremely surprised.”
Like many others, Deichert said he learned -- almost in disbelief -- about Sander’s arrest through news reports and social media sites.
Deichert described Sander as “quiet and shy,” but added that it seemed like the principal had “opened up” to people as the school year had gone on.
Though Deichert commended Glasser and the Dickinson Catholic Schools leadership for putting together a plan for the rest of the school year following the abruptness of the fire, he also said he is angry about the ordeal, a sentiment that seemed to be shared by some during the forum.
“This is heartbreaking and disappointing,” said Carla Arthaud of Dickinson, a parent of two former Trinity students who has another child in Trinity’s elementary system.
“When the parents got taken away from the school board last year, everybody wanted to respect the decisions that were made, but parents lost their say. We deserve to also be on the board and people deserve to be elected to the board. I hope that the (Dickinson Catholic Schools) leadership understand the stance that parents are taking on this. As a community, I think we dropped the ball last year.”
In April, it was announced that Dickinson Catholic Schools leadership had moved to dismiss all seven layperson members of its school board in favor of creating a new board consisting of Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck, Trinity Chaplain Rev. Kregg Hochhalter, one appointed layperson representative from each of four parishes, and the four Dickinson parish priests with Schumacher serving as chair.
“I think the concern is this: I spent a lot of years in school, but I don’t have the qualifications to step forward and take just any job that I just decide I want to do,” said Sandra Kuntz at the forum. “I think that’s the biggest concern of the parents. The way the board is structured now, there are individuals who stepped in without the qualifications and I do think that part of what we see from this situation is the lack qualifications to properly screen individuals that were put in charge of our school.”
Evidence of Monday’s blaze was clearly visible during a media walk-through Wednesday.
The school’s main office area was completely gutted by the fire, with water and a coating of ash layered atop of the floor of the school’s lobby.
Walls and floors throughout the school were blackened, covered in soot and ash from the fire, from the far north side of Knights of Columbus Activities Center gymnasium to the east and west wings of the facility.
Among items that survived the fire, and resting near the front office area on a desk, was a damaged prayer intention book that Trinity sophomore Jillian Jassek recognized from a Dickinson Press photo that circulated Wednesday on Twitter. On the fore edge of the book was written “Love God with all your heart & soul.”
“It’s unfortunate that this had to happen,” Jassek said. “We’re going to pull together as Trinity Titans and we’ll make this work. I’m really grateful for all the support and for the help from the public schools. It was cool to see our prayer intention book still there. It’s sad, but we will get through this.”
Schumacher said the school is insured through Catholic Mutual Group for $17 million. In a release sent Wednesday afternoon, Kagan stated that he would oversee a meeting of DCS leaders in Dickinson on Friday.
Support from the community
Dickinson Public Schools are ready to welcome Trinity’s students with open arms.
A marquee sign at Berg Elementary School a message flashes, “Welcome, Trinity students.”
The fire also attracted several students from Dickinson High School, including senior Foster Leiss, who was checking out the damage late Wednesday afternoon.
He said the fire was “really tragic for the entire community,” but he feels people are willing to help.
“I think they (the Trinity students) will be more than welcomed in all of the public schools,” Leiss said.
Dickinson Public Schools is “very well positioned” for its students future, Superintendent Doug Sullivan said, adding it is able to help Dickinson Catholic Schools students and staff.
"Any solution that is crafted with them is going to be a temporary solution that will get them through this school year, because next year we have to start to reclaim these classrooms for the students that are enrolling in our school system," Sullivan said.
Running on barely any sleep for a third consecutive day, Glasser said the Trinity community needs to focus on “getting our seniors graduated.”
Glasser added that religion courses and instruction would continue in the rented public school facilities that Dickinson Catholic Schools will be using, and said the Trinity school calendar would remain intact.
“We’re going to do the best we can under the circumstances,” Glasser said. “We’ll need a lot of support and we’re going to get that. We have no control over what happened, but we have all the control in the world over how we handle the situation from here. This is an opportunity for us.
“Our heavenly father will take care of us.”
April Baumgarten, Katherine Grandstrand and Dustin Monke contributed to this story.