DICKINSON, N.D. — Contrary to the general rule, about 250 teenagers were happy to be in school Monday.
After a week without school, watching the drama of their school building fire unfold — drama that can read more like a crime novel than real life — Dickinson’s Trinity High School students are just happy to be together again — together as much as they can be among three public schools and the basement of a local church.
After a fire early March 3 badly damaged the Trinity school building students were given the week off while school officials and a very supportive community, figured out how they were going to finish the last three months of classes.
Monday was the first big test and, by all accounts, they passed.
“I’m extremely happy — pleased — at how it’s going,” said Dickinson Catholic Schools President Steve Glasser.
Glasser made sure to visit all four of the buildings where Trinity students are. He said he saw a lot of smiling faces.
“If you walked in (the classrooms) and didn’t know anything about what had happened, you wouldn’t know this was their first time here,” he said.
As with any change, however, it’s not always easy at first.
“It’s been hard to adjust to a different setting,” said sophomore Lucas Kubik.
“It’s not going to be the same as Trinity,” said Mason Fridrich, a ninth-grader.
The ninth-graders will spend most of their time at Berg Elementary School with the sophomores right around the corner in Hagen Junior High School.
The schools have been really welcoming, both Trinity teachers and students say. Berg’s front entrance sign had a large welcoming message and Hagen had a number of “Welcome Trinity Students!” posters on its walls.
Prairie Rose Elementary School, where the seventh- and eighth-graders are, had a large banner with student handprints across the top of the entrance to the lunchroom that read, “You have two hands. One to help yourself, the second to help others.”
“It was a little weird coming (to Berg) at first, but with every period it feels a little less weird,” said ninth-grader Austin Kadrmas.
“At first it was harder,” said seventh-grader Alexa Rofer, “then I saw some of my friends and I felt more comfortable.”
The teachers, too, have had to be flexible. Some are not even teaching the same grade levels.
“(We) just try to take one day at a time,” said Trinity Spanish teacher Katie Severson.
Working in education means constant adjustment, said Andrew DesRosier, an English teacher and the activities director.
“This is just a little more drastic adjustment than usual,” he said.
The first priority has been education, DesRosier said, and other activities will be figured out as soon as that part is covered. Monday was mostly a day for students to become accustomed to their new facilities.
Juniors and seniors in the basement of St. Joseph Church watched the appropriately-titled movie “Remember the Titans.” Most classrooms across the buildings are a sea of red “Titan Strong” T-shirts, donated to the students by Steffes Corp.
“There’s so much positive energy,” said junior Brett Mortenson. “It’s just good to be back.”
For the older students, the loss of the building is more pronounced, especially for those who will be graduating this year.
Senior Briana Dolechek said most of her extended family graduated from the stage in Trinity’s auditorium and she is sad she may not be able to do the same. However, she said, being a part of Trinity is not just about walking across that same stage.
“It’s not the building that was important, but the people and the spirit,” she said.
The school may attempt to have graduation on its auditorium stage. At least, it’s part of the conversation, said the Rev. Kregg Hochhalter, the newly named dean of students who will function as acting principal until he has finished certification.
Part of his job now, he said, will be to repair the broken trust with students that happened when their former principal, Thomas Sander, was charged with arson and endangerment by fire last week.
Students and teachers called Sander “odd,” “quiet” and “a bit off.” But most seemed to like him.
Dolechek said she felt close to Sander. The news of his arrest was so shocking, she said, because she trusted him.
“He doesn’t really understand everything he took from us, which hurts,” she said.
Sander has not yet entered a plea. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 21.
Dickinson Police Capt. Joe Cianni said Monday there were no new details in the criminal investigation. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is re-examining the scene today, he said.
Last Thursday, a juvenile was arrested at 3 a.m. for hindering law enforcement in connection with the fire. The incident started late Wednesday night, Cianni said, although he would not elaborate on what the incident was.
The damage from the fire is extensive, particularly to the front office area. The rest of the building has significant smoke damage and the upstairs library and counselor’s office took a lot of structural damage.
Heather Schieno, the school counselor and psychology teacher, said her office by the library is essentially a sinkhole. Her desk had sunk about 3 feet below the chalkboard, she said.
It’s been a major challenge to come up with new schedules for students, especially at the senior high level with all the electives to include. What they were doing over a whole summer with a computer they had to do in a week on paper.
“Sleep is not a prioprity right now,” Schieno said. “Kids are the priority.”
Hochhalter has a mantra he’s been repeating to himself this past week, he said: “‘Titan Strong’ will make the glory of God known in the city of Dickinson.”
On Monday, Trinity students and teachers reiterated the sentiment of the back of their “Titan Strong” T-shirts: “We will rise again.”