Former teacher, survivor of 2005 Red Lake school shooting, demands action in wake of Uvalde
“I will do what I have to because my kids should not go to a school with a flag at half-staff because kids their age were murdered in their classroom,” said Missy Dodds after the Uvalde shooting. "No more. Never again." Seventeen years ago, Dodds survived the Red Lake, Minnesota, school shooting.
BEMIDJI — Missy Dodds cried in her car from both frustration and anger after seeing the U.S. flag at half-staff in front of her twin third-grade boys’ school.
The lowered flag marked the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25. Dodds said the sight of the flag made her drop to her knees, once her kids were inside the school.
Seventeen years ago, Dodds survived the Red Lake shooting, the only mass school shooting in Minnesota. Jeffrey Weise, 16, opened fire at Red Lake Senior High School north of Bemidji. In the span of 90 seconds, Dodds said five of her ninth-graders and a co-worker were killed when Weise shot into her classroom where she worked as a math teacher. Seven people on campus were killed before Weise committed suicide in Dodds’ classroom.
Dodds, a Bemidji resident, said whenever she meets fellow survivors of shootings, the first thing she always wants to say is, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry we didn’t stop it before it got to you.”
Legacy of gun violence
School gun violence in Minnesota has increased in frequency in recent years, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database . Since 1970, there have been 20 K-12 school shootings in Minnesota. Nine, almost half of those shootings, took place in the past four years.
As national debates swirl around gun legislation and other methods to prevent gun violence in schools, Dodds and violence prevention experts are concentrating on what can be done at a local level, including promoting anonymous reporting in schools, increased mental health support and the formation of crisis response teams.
“I will do what I have to because my kids should not go to a school with a flag at half-staff because kids their age were murdered in their classroom,” Dodds said. “No more. Never again.”
In 2005, the Red Lake shooting was the second deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. It is now the sixth deadliest — surpassed by Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Santa Fe (Texas) High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 and Robb Elementary in 2022.
The Robb Elementary shooting marks one of several high-profile mass shootings in recent weeks. From the Buffalo, New York, shooting at a supermarket in which 10 people were killed to the Tulsa, Oklahoma, hospital shooting less than three weeks later.
Stressed out teachers
School gun violence has been increasing in frequency at a national level, as it has in Minnesota. Midway through 2022, there have already been 146 school shootings in the U.S. Two of those shootings took place in Minnesota — both in the Twin Cities metro area.
Cynthia Zwicky, an education professor at the University of Minnesota, said she is concerned that Minnesota will respond to the increase in school shootings by putting even more responsibility on teachers who are already overburdened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zwicky, who has worked as an elementary education teacher for 25 years, said some of her students have even been questioning the vocation of teaching because of the shooting — worried that they will now be expected to protect students from violent threats in addition to leading a classroom.
“It is terrifying,” she said. “What are we asking elementary teachers to do? You don’t become elementary school teachers because you want to be armed.”
Looking for solutions
Rashmi Seneviratne, executive director at Protect Minnesota, an advocacy group aimed at preventing gun violence, echoed Zwicky’s concerns. She said a lot of people react to school shootings by arming teachers and increasing police presence, but this doesn’t work according to her research.
Instead, Seneviratne said the best way to prevent gun violence is to take a comprehensive approach and build community-driven solutions.
“Background checks are great, and we need that,” she said, “but we also need investment in mental health. We’re so reactive as a society and we could be doing more preventatively.”
Since the Red Lake shooting, Dodds, who is no longer a teacher, has attended classes and conferences hosted by the U.S. Department of Education to better understand how to prevent gun violence in schools.
She and Seneviratne agree that prevention at the earliest stages is key, and one solution is to administer regular risk assessments for all students. Risk assessments can identify risk factors of escalating violence, but they can also help teachers more quickly identify kids who are suffering from mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and pinpoint solutions.
To address the results of risk assessments, Dodds is a proponent of crisis response teams. A multidisciplinary team made up of teachers, staff and counselors would gather as a community to problem solve how to support the student. The aim is for the program to be rehabilitative instead of punitive. She said teams could make recommendations like setting up therapy appointments or putting a student on a pass/fail grading system while they navigate a tough period in their life. Law enforcement could talk to family members about removing guns from the home if necessary.
Although some counties have teams like this, Dodds said many smaller rural communities would have trouble affording the staff. She hopes that Minnesota will one day start a state-wide system to ensure consistent school safety protocols throughout the state.
Another solution is for Minnesota to provide anonymous reporting mechanisms to identify a range of crises — not just immediate physical threats, Dodds said. Students, parents and school staff could share any concerns they have from falling grades to self harm to drug use without fear of retaliation.
Mental health and student crises are not a prerequisite for violence, Dodds made sure to clarify. Many students are in crisis, but hardly any student will commit a violent act. However, in Dodds’ case, she believes that if the gunman at her school had received support earlier on, his actions might not have escalated to violence.
“It will never excuse what he did, ever,” she said, “but he’d been hurt a lot. That was a kid who needed help.”
Frustrated at progress
She and Seneviratne both said they are frustrated that Minnesota has not taken enough action to prevent gun violence while children continue to suffer.
“There are mothers burying their children, and, as a society, how do we not prioritize that?” Seneviratne said. “It doesn’t have to be that your guns are taken away, but there has to be something. We keep saying kids are resilient and piling more things on them, but they’re not resilient. They’re just building a trauma response.”
Dodds said that the fact that there are potential solutions and they haven’t been implemented makes her want to pull her hair out.
“It's on us,” she said. “It's not on the teachers. It's not on the principals. It's on us because we are not doing what we should be doing to help keep our kids safe.”
Learn more: Key data takeaways on U.S. school shootings
According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database , the majority of shooters are students or former students. Out of 2,268 shooters with available data, 972 were students. This includes current students of the school, students from neighboring schools and other students where the school is not identified. An additional 80 shooters were former students.
The next most frequent shooters are school athletic attendees, parents and police officers, including student resource officers.
According to Washington Post’s 2018 school shooting investigation, the highest casualty shootings involve young white male shooters.
The Washington Post spent a year determining how many children have been affected by school shootings and identified every act of gunfire at a primary or secondary school during school hours since the Columbine High massacre on April 20, 1999.
There were 238 school shootings, following this definition, between 1999 and 2018. Most shootings are instigated by male shooters. The majority of shooters are under 25 years old and most often white. The shootings with highest casualties have most often been instigated by young white males.
Where did most school shooters obtain the weapon? The Washington Post investigation found that most school shooters obtained the weapon from their family — a majority from their father. Between 1999 and 2018, more than 50% of shooters obtained the gun from a family member.
More than 15% of the shooters purchased the gun legally followed by weapons issued by police.