Nearby shooting prompts security measures at tribal school in South Dakota
Crow Creek Tribal School, a combination boarding and day school serving the Crow Creek reservation and other Native students from around the country, put in place stringent security measures after a shooting in Fort Thompson involving at least one student.
HIGHMORE, S.D. — The two lines of middle and high schoolers spilled into the crisp morning air outside Crow Creek Tribal School, a rural school of around 400 students between kindergarten and 12th grade. Monitors behind the silver doors of the school’s side entrance let them in one at a time, boys on the left and girls on the right.
The morning of Wednesday, Sept. 28, was the sixth day of heightened security at the school after a shooting involving a student days earlier.
Inside the school, which serves as a boarding school for Natives from as far away as Alaska and a day school for local students, several staff members stood around a folding table.
Students were instructed to remove their jackets and empty the contents of their pockets into beige bins before being pat down. Next, staff used a handheld metal detector to check the student’s shoes and ankles, the robotic noises of the machine providing a sort of rhythm for the queue.
Finally, while most of the students had left their backpacks at home, those who had brought bags left them in the hallway. They would get them back for athletics at the end of the day.
Twelve days earlier, on Friday, Sept. 16, an argument between families escalated into a shooting in Fort Thompson, about 15 miles south of the school. At least one student was involved in the shooting, who has since been detained, Crow Creek Chairman Peter Lengkeek said.
The Fort Thompson police, a federal entity under the Office of Justice Services in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had no comment on the ongoing investigation.
Although nobody was killed in the Fort Thompson incident, threats of retaliation on social media and rumors of a gun hidden at the school made their way to Crow Creek’s administration and tribal government. Those officials collectively decided to cancel school on the following Monday and Tuesday to prepare security measures. The homecoming parade and football game, originally scheduled for Sept. 23 and 24, was postponed until late October.
“I would not want to be the person in charge when something happens without doing something to prevent it,” said Robert Hall, who is just over a month into his tenure as high school principal. “I couldn’t face the people.”
Parents, students report mixed feelings over measures
For parents, the immediate concern was their children. Teresa Voice, a secretary at the school who has a child at the elementary school, said she and other parents were especially worried about the homecoming events planned for the week leading up to the parade on Friday, Sept. 23, just one week after the shooting.
“I got a call from a parent and he said, ‘Why in the hell are you guys having homecoming knowing that all this happened? And your kids is one of the ones that’s going to be in the parade. How can you have called off school Monday and Tuesday, but Friday's homecoming where everybody is involved out here in the public?” Voice recalled.
Lengkeek called the postponement a “hard decision to make,” but ultimately felt the decision was the right one.
On the other side, some students felt that the security measures were an overreaction to an unsubstantiated rumor. They added that, though the security lines have become more efficient since the first day, the searches and backpack rules are still a somewhat cumbersome process that make getting into school and carrying their supplies between classes more difficult.
Still, many understood where the administration was coming from in their quick response to the social media threats and worry of feuds spilling into the school.
“At least they’re doing this to protect us, it seems like they’re trying to keep us safe,” said Ronessa Sazue, a junior at the school.
National worries over school safety, lack of protection inform quick response
According to Education Week , there have been 32 school shootings resulting in injuries or deaths since Jan. 1. Hall said fears of his school becoming yet another statistic were top of mind in crating a response to the threat of violence.
Hall specifically mentioned the shooting this past spring in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed. The loss of life created a new entry in the national debate over the ease of buying assault weapons, and the response to the incident.
“We're caught in a political discussion, and unfortunately it is not attending to the additional costs that open access to guns is costing all the schools in the country,” Hall said. “You know, everybody is living with an additional stress.”
Though top of mind for every administrator due to the nature of schools as “soft targets,” circumstances on the reservation further heightened fears of what a shooting at the school would mean. Lengkeek says law enforcement on the reservation is severely understaffed, sometimes leaving only one officer to patrol the more than 400 square miles of land. In the event of a disaster, the response time could approach an hour.
“We're a long ways from a hospital out here, too,” Lengkeek said. “And so we take things into account like that. And that guided us and directed us in our decision making.”
While the school had taken the threat of a shooting seriously before, including going through shooter-preparedness training this school year and ordering a walk-through metal detector in June, supply chain issues have delayed the arrival of that detector until late next month.
Furthermore, although the school has received federal funding for a full-time security officer on the premises, the cumbersome federal hiring process means the position will be filled in December at the earliest. Until then, the school is hoping to share an officer with the Lower Brule school system across the river, though the details are still being worked out.
As a stopgap measure until a more permanent security solution was available, school was canceled on the Monday after the shooting, Sept. 19, for a staff development day.
Though not initially planned, the need for more time prompted another staff development day on Tuesday, as teachers, administrators and tribal leaders practiced different ways to move students through an effective security check without sacrificing breakfast or class time.
“All of us are grateful for that,” Superintendent Francine Hall said. “We had our practices, and our board members were going through the lines and doing everything else just like the rest of us.”
According to Lengkeek and Robert Hall, the principal, the value of collective defense is tightly wound in the history of the Crow Creek Reservation, which is mainly populated by Dakota who were pushed out of their land in present day Minnesota after the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862. The people were given the name Hunkpati by Chief Sitting Bull, a name that translates to “Camps at the Tip of the Horn.”
“That's the defensive position of the community,” Lengkeek said. “If somebody comes in with bad intentions, those are the people that stop it.”