Shattered security: Surviving Red Lake teacher calls for change

11:21 AM, Apr 30, 2010   |    comments
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HASTINGS, Minn. -- When a student with a handgun broke into three classrooms at the Hastings Middle School the day after Easter this year, not everyone made the connection to the school shootings at Red Lake High School five years earlier.

Missy Dodds could think of nothing else.

"I was angry," said the former Red Lake teacher, who witnessed the murders of a co-worker and five of her students. "I just couldn't believe it would happen again like that."

Dodds yelled to her husband to come to the television when she heard the reports from Hastings while at her home in Bemidji. A security failure at her school had now become a failure at another. She wondered when someone would come to the same conclusion she'd reached years ago: a lockdown does no good when an armed intruder can simply break a window at the classroom door.

In Red Lake the intruder was 16-year-old Jeff Weise, who took six lives inside Dodds' locked classroom after shooting out and then walking through a tempered glass window that ran vertically along the classroom door.

In Hastings an armed 8th grader with a history of behavioral problems punched out the windows in three classroom doors to gain access to students under a lockdown.

"When a person shuts a door there's an assumption of safety," said Hastings Middle School Principal Mark Zuzek. "Until two weeks ago I assumed that to be true as well."

Hastings caught a break. The 14-year-old student carried bullets too long for his gun. Though police found a bullet in the gun's cylinder, it wouldn't shoot.

In Dodds' Red Lake classroom, the door remained locked through the entire ordeal. In fact Wiese shot the door's lock before turning to the window. The lock held. The window did not.

"Actually I saw the ah-ha moment when he realized he could shoot the glass. I just felt that. I've always felt that. He was just kind of like, 'Oh I can shoot the through the glass,'" recalled Dodds.

Dodds said Wiese fired three or four times into the tempered glass window next to her door. The glass crumbled. Dodds remembers the crunching sound as Wiese walked across the glass in the darkened classroom toward her students huddled along a wall. Dodd was on one end of the group and another teacher, Neva Rogers, was on the other.

"He started asking who believed in God. Ms. Rogers started praying and she was the first one to go."

Other bullets would hit and kill students Chase Lussier, Thurlene Stillday, Alicia White, Chanelle Rosebear and Dewayne Lewis. "They were my babies. And they were all just sweet amazing kids," said Dodds, wiping away tears.

Several other students were seriously injured, including Jeffrey May who was shot in the face when he charged Weise, attempting to stab him with a pencil.

Wiese would leave the room after that, walking back into the hall through the broken window next to the door. Moments later he returned, this time with police close behind. Standing a few feet from Dodds and her dead and injured students, Wiese turned the gun on himself.

For five years Dodds has chosen to keep her anguish private, turning down every request she received for television interviews.

But when another armed student broke glass to enter the classrooms in Hastings, Dodds decided she needed to speak out. "I don't know if things would be different if the glass was there or not, but I know how he got into my room. And it was through the glass pane."

At one time nearly all interior school windows were made of plate glass. It was cheap, but when shattered, broke into shards that could cut students. Eventually states, including Minnesota, altered their building codes for new schools to require tempered in student traffic areas. Smash it, and tempered glass breaks into tiny blunt pieces that won't cut anyone - much better for school safety, but still lacking for security.

"My bottom line is this, I don't like tempered glass," said Paul Timm, a school security consultant with RETA Security in Lemont, Illinois. "I don't like tempered glass because if you hit it hard enough it's going to be able to break and then I'm going to be in."

Instead, Timm believes impact resistant laminated glass -- similar to the glass used in car windshields -- should be required by building codes for use in and near classroom doors. Laminated glass will still crack when struck hard with a baseball bat or crowbar, but unlike plate or tempered glass, laminated glass will maintain its integrity through multiple blows.

Another option for existing windows is impact resistant film applied on the outside of glass. Like laminated glass, the film, made by 3M and Madico among other companies, keeps windows in one piece even when the glass underneath shatters.

RELATED VIDEO: Texas security camera captures frustrated thieves unable to break through 3M window film. Video provided by Tim's Window Tinting, Dallas. 

RELATED VIDEO: Demonstration of treated and untreated windows. Video provided by Madico and ENPRO Distributing.

Hastings school officials needed no convincing after their brush with tragedy at the middle school. Last Friday they began the replacement of plate glass in 35 classroom doors with laminated glass. Total cost of the project: $2100, or roughly $60 per door.

That price was virtually the same as replacing the windows with tempered glass, according to Jim Johnson, the owner of Midwest Glass, the company doing the work at Hastings. If the same set of circumstance were to reoccur in Hastings, Johnson expressed confidence, "he wouldn't be able to punch through."

In fact Hastings got a firsthand look at what happens with more impact resistant glass. In addition to the three classroom he broke into, the armed student tried to gain entry into two classroom with wire mesh in the glass. In both cases, the glass cracked but stayed in place because of the wire. The student moved on. Wire mesh is no longer recommended by safety officials because students can suffer serious cuts during accidental breaks.

None of this means laminated glass is bullet proof. It does, however, tend to remain in its frame as bullets pass though, again denying access to an intruder.

Hastings school superintendent Tim Collins says the district plans to examine the glass in other school buildings for possible replacement. "With the price that we're talking, it's definitely something that shouldn't delay us in our actions or other schools from looking into it."

Timm said Minnesota, of all places, should be taking a lead on impact resistant glass. "For it to happen once in this state is too much. for it to happen twice I start to say, when are we going to take action?"

But Timm's call for code changes is a recommendation not shared by the Minnesota School Safety Center, a joint project of the state departments of public safety and education.

"More research needs to be done," said Mike Siitari, the agency's director. Siitari believes decisions on glass are best left to local school districts and the public safety officials who advise them. Siitari said the glass issue is worth exploring, but "I think it's difficult to take one thing and say that will be the solution.

For her part, Missy Dodds can't figure out why the state would allow any new school to be built with plate or tempered glass in the doors. "My classroom was brand new. First year in use. Brand new building."

Having witnessed the deaths of a co-worker, five of her students and the shooter by his own gun, Dodds remains in therapy.

Five years ago this spring she walked out of her classroom through the same broken window the shooter entered. She hasn't taught a day since.

"It's still with me all the time," she says. "It is. It is."

 

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