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Year after Dickinson high school fire, faculty and students look on the bright side

DICKINSON, N.D. -- It's been a year since an unknown suspect set fire to a vault inside Trinity High School's main office in Dickinson, leaving hundreds of students displaced for the rest of the year and a principal fired amid a botched investiga...

Many classes at Trinity High School are currently in rented modulars, shown Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, as Dickinson Catholic Schools designs and goes forward with a plan to consolidate all schools onto a single campus, a plan jump-started by a fire in the high school a year ago. (Press Photo by Katherine Lymn)
Many classes at Trinity High School are currently in rented modulars, shown Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, as Dickinson Catholic Schools designs and goes forward with a plan to consolidate all schools onto a single campus, a plan jump-started by a fire in the high school a year ago. (Press Photo by Katherine Lymn)
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DICKINSON, N.D. -- It’s been a year since an unknown suspect set fire to a vault inside Trinity High School’s main office in Dickinson, leaving hundreds of students displaced for the rest of the year and a principal fired amid a botched investigation.

But the school is better for it, officials say.

They point to how the fire, which destroyed parts of the school on March 3, 2014, jump-started a plan to consolidate all of the Dickinson Catholic Schools onto a single campus, the site of the fire, and how the event brought the community -- of the school and of Dickinson more broadly -- together through struggles and generosity.

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Fundraising after the fire, most notably the Trinity Band-Aid event, raised $300,000. Much of the funds went toward immediate needs, like new textbooks. But DCS is still working on raising money for its planned consolidated campus, a two-phase project that will renovate most of the existing high school and bring all other kindergarten through sixth-grade students to that campus as well.

As for the “Whodunnit?” the students seem to have moved on, busy now as they were then with high school life. Dickinson police’s investigation is still open, and active -- detectives are looking at multiple possible culprits, Det. Sgt. Kylan Klauzer said recently.

The notorious first investigation failed, ending with a principal arrested and fired, but eventually cleared of charges of arson and endangering by fire. Former Principal Tom Sander is back in St. Louis with his family, said Lloyd Suhr, the attorney who defended Sander. Suhr said in August that he wasn’t sure Sander would try to get back into the education administration career, aware of how this charge -- even though he wasn’t convicted -- would show up on background checks.

In the same way, the Trinity community knows the fire will always be a part of its history. But the community is not hung up on figuring out who the arsonist is.

“Just as we had no control of the action of the arsonist or arsonists, whomever is the perpetrator in the fire, we also have no control over the police processing, nor can we comment on them,” Msgr. Patrick Schumacher said. “... We control what we can and that is our attitudes of, first of all, gratitude that no one was killed in this fire that was set, and we’re also grateful of the position we are in right now of Dickinson Catholic Schools.”

DCS President Steve Glasser said he has periodic conversations with Dickinson police about the investigation, but he wouldn’t comment further on the matter.

Making due

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The signs of the fire are still visible. The front end of the school is fenced off, with more signs for construction companies than for the school. Smoke damage still commands the front wall of what used to be a hallway on the first floor and the library on the second.

But inside the school, you wouldn't know it.

Music class is now in the auditorium.

Home economics cooking and sewing classes are in old storage rooms just off the gym.

With the kitchen tables and ovens lining the cooking classroom, it looks meant to be.

Despite all the rearrangements in the fall, Trinity High School was still able to offer all its classes, Glasser said, albeit in different spaces.

“We had to be very creative with space,” he said.

What used to be a simple utility room is now the school’s front office.

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The music instruments, like the home economics supplies, just had to be cleaned to be used again. But their original homes in the east wing of the school aren’t usable.

“Sometimes it seems like the fire was yesterday, and sometimes it seems like the fire was five years ago,” Glasser said.

Students were displaced by the fire, but were welcomed into Dickinson Public Schools facilities for the remainder of the academic year.

Sami Daniel, speaking from the school’s hallways the same day she would later play in an important basketball playoff game, was a freshman at the time.

“I kind of bumped back and forth between Hagen (Junior High School) and Berg (Elementary School),” she said.

Students made friends they wouldn’t have otherwise known, she said, from the mixing up of classes and classrooms. She said that’s the biggest impact the fire’s had -- she’s not hung up on who lit it.

“What happened has happened,” she said.

Rev. Kregg Hochhalter, Trinity’s dean of students, said he’s proud of the resilience of the student body.

“I think they took it so hard last spring and it took so much guts and grit to get through the spring,” he said. “They took the summer to really reflect on what happened.”

Consolidated campus

The fire, members of the Trinity community say, brought them together -- both emotionally and, with the different schools joining for a consolidated campus, physically.

If all goes as planned, grades 7-12 will be in their new junior high and high schools in fall 2016. DCS hopes the second phase, for preschool through sixth grade, will be complete by fall 2018.

Plans include rebuilding the center part of the school, the heart of where the fire hit, into a two-story structure. The east wing of the existing school, which also was damaged by the fire, will have a three-story academic center and a new chapel.

“There will always be a silver lining somewhere in challenge and tragedy in our life,” Schumacher said. “There is really no joy without suffering -- and a lot of people have suffered -- and we’re starting to see the elements of joy in our future, that’s for sure.”

To fund the new campus, Glasser said the school is focusing on “leadership gifts” -- the big ones.

“To make this happen, obviously we need substantial gifts,” he said.

Hochhalter, whose one-year anniversary as dean of students is just a couple of days after the fire’s, said students aren’t thinking too much about the unanswered questions of the fire.

“In terms of like who did it and when we’re gonna get answers to this, it's simply not in their conscious anymore,” he said.

Students learned plenty about resilience and unity through the fire, but Hochhalter said it’s not incorporated into actual lesson plans quite yet. He thinks it might work well as a lesson for English or religion class in the future, “but right now, I think we’re just too close.”


Related Topics: FIRESDICKINSONNORTH DAKOTA
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