SHE SAVED LIVES, BUT DON’T CALL HER A HERO
TEACHER’S COURAGE AND QUICK ACTIONS LED AT LEAST 20 TO SAFETY
This was just moments after Jeff Weise chased, cornered and killed a teacher and five fellow students inside a classroom at Red Lake High School. He stepped out into the hallway, searching for more victims.
He found five classrooms empty. Then he peered into a sixth, where Cynthia Rae Rowell had seconds earlier been busy teaching her last biology class for the day.
Most of us would consider what happened next heroic. But don’t use that word around Rowell to describe what she and some of her students were forced to do March 21, 2005.
There were no heroes that day, just victims and survivors of demented madness. Rowell would prefer not to see her name in public again or have this story recounted. But this little-known episode deserves retelling.
“I don’t know what else or what other words you can use to describe it, but what this woman and the kids in her class did that day was just incredible under the circumstances,” said the law enforcement official who investigated the shootings at the school. “The lives of at least 20 young people, if not more, were saved.”
This description of Rowell’s actions is based on accounts from a federal law enforcement official and a close relative. The federal official asked not to be identified because the Red Lake investigation technically remains open. The relative did not want to be named because Rowell has indicated she does not want attention for her actions.
When Weise arrived at Rowell’s classroom, he fired a shot that shattered a glass panel next to the room’s door and walked through it. He then shot and wounded one of the students, Cody Thunder, 15, in the hip as he tried to seek refuge. Then Weise pointed the gun at Rowell’s head.
The teacher ignored Weise, turned her back to him and, in a swooshing kind of gesture, signaled to the students in the room to take cover behind lab tables while heading through an open door into a nearby office. Some students, aware that some classmates were slow-footed or numbed by the events taking place, ushered or forcibly escorted them into the office.
Rowell soon followed and closed the door. There was no lock from the inside, so she jammed her foot against the base and grabbed hold of the door handle.
Why Weise did not fire at the teacher when he had the chance remains a subject of speculation among investigators. Perhaps he was surprised at her response. Perhaps there was something inside that deeply troubled soul that admired the sheer resolve of such defiant courage and self-sacrifice.
That moment of reflection, if there was one, did not last. Weise began firing at the outside door handle.
Rowell, aware that Weise would come through the door at any moment, ushered the students into an adjoining classroom full of freshmen and a substitute teacher. An exit at the back of the classroom led to the outer hallway and, nearby, a door that led to a courtyard pathway.
That’s where the students and Rowell headed as Weise burst into the room. He fired into the hallway. Noticing the fleeing students through a paneled glass window with a view of the pathway, Weise opened fire through the glass.
“Run in zigzag!” Rowell instructed the students. None were wounded.
Weise turned back toward the hallway, only to be met by three armed tribal police officers at the other end. He was hit twice during an exchange of gunfire and fled back into the classroom where he had killed teacher Neva Rogers and five students.
“I have hostages in here!” they heard the wounded gunman yell. They also heard screaming inside. A shot rang out moments later inside the darkened classroom. Fearing the worst, one of the cops burst through the closed door.
He found another casualty. This time, it was Weise. The boy had killed himself with a shotgun.
Chris Jourdain, a Red Lake middle school counselor and basketball coach, knows the story well. Like many reservation residents affected by the school shootings, he doesn’t look kindly to outsiders trying to define or make sense of or revisit what happened a year ago.
He prefers to direct the focus and the conversation to the good that came out of such a tragedy. He cites the $1 million the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community donated to the Red Lake Nation last week to build a sorely needed Boys and Girls Club building on the reservation.
But his sister was in Rowell’s classroom that day. He has no problem at all using the word “hero.”
“I am thankful for the heroic action, because my sis is still here in part to it, so I am forever thankful for those actions of everyone in that room,” Jourdain said.
Rowell, who taught Weise, no longer works at the high school. She moved to another part of the country after her husband accepted a job offer last year.
“I believe that if Rae spoke about this, she would above all emphasize the unselfish bravery of the kids in her classroom that day who pulled together, took risks to protect one another and even helped younger students and a teacher in an adjacent classroom to escape safely,” said a close family member who requested anonymity.
“If the first thought and duty of a warrior is to protect the people, then those kids acted as true warriors that day,” the relative added. “I believe that Rae would say that she wishes with all her heart that she could have returned to work at Red Lake last spring, finished the school year, spent time with the kids and co-workers, and then said a proper, hopeful goodbye to them. She still cares about them, and hopes they understand.”
I’m sure they do.
St. Paul Pioneer Press – Ruben Rosario – March 2006