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Bemidji School District: Bathroom fire incident handled smoothly, says Hess

Bemidji School District Superintendent Jim Hess said students and staff "did a marvelous job" handling the second-story bathroom fire that occurred Monday morning.

The incident, which is currently under investigation, prompted an early release of students, who were relocated to the Bemidji Middle School to await busses and rides home.

"They were well-behaved, as far as students," Hess said. "They certainly acted in an appropriate manner. The (building staff) evacuated the building as they needed to; they put together a plan for lunch, tended to students' safety and security and then the eventual cleanup of the facility."

Hess, along with all building principals, talked about the fire incident during a leadership meeting Tuesday morning.

"We talked about the early dismissal and some of the issues that it caused with trying to bring in bus drivers and getting them ready to go, and then how to evacuate a building of 1,500 students to another place," Hess said. "That causes some logistical issues that we certainly have addressed."

Hess said he thinks schools will be ready should another similar occurrence happen in the future, which, he added, he hopes does not.

When asked if students are required to have passes to go to the bathroom or are under time constraints while on a restroom break, Hess said the school district has not imposed strict limits on restroom breaks, nor is likely to do so in the future.

"We try to give students the responsibility," he said. "For the most part students respond appropriately. This was one isolated case of a student that made a poor choice. It affected many people's lives."

Fire officials responding to the high school Monday found heavy smoke inside the boys' bathroom on the second floor of the building. The fire was quickly extinguished with fire damage confined to the bathroom. According to a press release sent by Bemidji Fire Department Chief Dave Hoefer, the second floor of the school suffered minor smoke damage.

According to Hess, who was on scene after the fire was extinguished, an odor of smoke lingered in the restroom and some charcoal particles had gotten out into the hallway, which caused health and safety concerns among school officials.

Hess said it is important to note the fire was not hot enough to set off the school's fire suppressant system in the restroom.

"We would have had the entire second floor doused with water had the flames reached a higher temperature," Hess said. "We might have had water seeping into the first floor then, too."

For the most part things were back to normal Tuesday at the high school. Inside the boys' restroom, a new plastic toilet seat, restroom partition and toilet paper dispenser will need to be replaced.

The fire remains under investigation by the Bemidji Police Department, Bemidji Fire Department and the Minnesota State Fire Marshall's Office.

Hess said the school district has looked at video tapes of anyone who entered and exited the bathroom an hour before the incident occurred.

"Disrupting 1,500 people and their lives, moving an operation the size of high school over into the middle school and going through kinds of activities we did, I think things went really well," Hess said. "I tribute that to the staff at the high school, our transportation crew and the middle school for being willing to open their doors to high school students."

BHS Principal Brian Stefanich declined to comment, requesting all inquiries regarding the fire incident be handled by Hess.