BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — A high school math teacher who grew up in Arkansas and one of her students on the Red Lake Indian Reservation have built on a lifelong bond since a 16-year-old boy shot his way into their classroom during a rampage in which he killed seven people before shooting himself.
Neither was hurt in the attack, but the trauma of the day has barely receded a decade later, leaving each to nurse their own psychic wounds and speak up for other survivors.
Missy Dodds was nearing the end of a challenging school day on March 21, 2005, having just kicked a few troublesome students out of her seventh-period study hall when she heard a commotion outside. It was Jeff Weise, the teen who had already killed his grandfather and grandfather’s companion elsewhere on the reservation before coming to his high school in search of more targets.
Dodds locked the door to her classroom, only to have Weise shoot out a glass partition to gain entry.
“I didn’t know what was going on but I thought we would be safe,” Dodds said. “Then when I looked up and saw his face in the glass, I thought, oh my God, we are in so much trouble.”
Jeff May, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound freshman who was scrambling to get his algebra homework done before the end of the school quarter, disrupted the shootings when he tried to stab Weise with a pencil. May was shot in the face, but he was credited with saving the lives of others.
Before the attack Dodds, then 30, loved her job and thought she would teach math at Red Lake for the rest of her career.
But she’s never been back in the classroom. She still takes anxiety medicine and attends therapy sessions about every two weeks, though she says she’s getting better since the days she used to walk around Wal-Mart clutching a pound of bacon to her chest — in case she needed it to stop a bullet.
Yet Dodds feels better off than many people who witnessed the shootings. She says she has a strong support system that includes family and friends.
“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all just making it,” Dodds said in an interview near her home in Bemidji. “I think in a way so many people feel like it’s over, it’s done with, and we should all be OK. I worry that a lot of them aren’t getting the help they need.”
Ashley Lajeunesse, a freshman in Dodds’ classroom at the time, said she can still sense the sounds and the smells of that day. She can’t sleep without her bedroom door cracked to let in a little light. But she, too, feels she’s better off than many who witnessed that day because she eventually sought help after struggling with drugs and alcohol.
“There are still a lot of them that have never gotten counseling that need it,” Lajeunesse said. “I was one of them.”
Lajeunesse, who still lives on the reservation, has taken upon herself to memorialize those who died that day and attempt to help those who lived. She spent her own money this year on a plaque that reads, “We will remember March 21.” Everybody knows the year, she said, so she left it off.
Lajeunesse and nine other schoolmates have also asked the tribe to sponsor a survivor’s fund. Their initial goal, she said, was a few thousand dollars to underwrite a potluck dinner and honor ceremony to bring people back together.
“It’s kind of a big deal for everybody,” Lajeunesse said. “A lot of people kind of lost touch after it happened so we would like to make it a reunion to see how everybody is doing.”
Dodds, who has kept in touch with many of her former students through Facebook, calls Lajeunesse her hero for her efforts in recent months to help her schoolmates. Lajeunesse says it’s the other way around and gives Dodds credit for “inspiring me to do everything.”
Dodds wrote to tribal officials asking them to get behind the event.
“I am asking this because I feel it is so important for the survivors of that day — especially the students who are young adults now — to be celebrated and honored for their bravery to have carried on the past decade,” Dodds wrote to Red Lake Chairman Darrell G. Seki Sr. “In the past few weeks and months, I have had several former students reach out to me. They want to tell me their stories of that day and how they have survived the past 10 years.”
Tribal and school district officials declined to comment on the anniversary or the request for a memorial, with Superintendent Anne Lundquist saying that she, Seki and school board President Mike Barrett believe it was “in the best interest of the tribe” not to talk about the topic.
Mark Rodgers, a Bemidji attorney, handled 15 personal injury cases as a result of the shootings and represented teachers and security guards who were working for the school at the time. He said Dodds isn’t the only person who left education after the shootings.
“Essentially most people kind of melted away from that school,” Rodgers said. “It was kind of amazing that over a period of a few years, people left. A few of them got jobs but those people for a large part aren’t working anymore.”
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