Millard South students returned to classes Friday morning with a mix of tears, hugs, smiles and Patriot pride as the high school continues to cope with this week's tragic shooting.
About a half hour before school started, hundreds of students walked in unison toward the front doors.
Patriot red, white and blue were the colors of the day. Retired staff members showed up unannounced to help.
Students hugged Millard South's four assistant principals. They slipped messages under Principal Curtis Case's office door: You are our hero. Get well soon. Thoughts and prayers go out to the Kaspar family.
Case, seriously wounded in Wednesday's shooting, was upgraded to fair condition at Creighton University Medical Center, and students were told he was resting comfortably. The memory of Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar, who died as a result of Wednesday's shooting, was top of mind.
District spokeswoman Amy Friedman said Friday's return to school would be important to Millard South's healing.
“We are overwhelmed,” she said. “Our staff members, everyone's here. We see this as a show of support to Dr. Case and the family of Dr. Kaspar. That's the message the kids were trying to send as well.”
In all, the district reported, 93 percent of Millard South's students attended school Friday, down slightly from last semester's 94.8 percent attendance average. Traffic around the school was jammed in the morning rush.
District and school administrators decided to hold classes according to the regular schedule in an effort to return students to their routine.
The return to school has Case's support. According to Friedman, Case told visitors: “We've got to get school going. Please tell the staff to carry on.”
“He wants Millard South to be known as an excellent school, not as a place where a shooting took place,” Friedman said.
Friday, Case issued a three-sentence statement from the hospital.
He said his thoughts and prayers were with Kaspar's friends and family, and with the students. “I am proud of all of the students and look forward to coming back. Thank you for all of your support.”
No one has been designated Millard South's acting principal in Case's absence.
All day, teachers and staff were prepared to help students cope, Friedman said.
She said teachers would address students' questions if they come up in class. If students got upset, teachers were to suggest that they talk with counselors on hand all day, she said. No special assembly was held.
Teachers read students a statement about the sadness of Kaspar's death and that of her killer, senior Robert Butler Jr., and the encouraging news of Case's condition. The message also mentioned Kaspar's scheduled funeral services and said students were welcome to attend.
“All of us at Millard South care deeply for our students and we are grateful for the support and understanding that was demonstrated by our students, staff and the Millard community,” the statement said.
Authorities revealed Thursday that school nurse Carolyn Fjell also was injured Wednesday. Her graze wound was treated at the scene.
Butler later took his own life.
In the aftermath of the shootings, the Millard Public Schools will be reviewing security policies, Superintendent Keith Lutz told The World-Herald in an interview Thursday.
Still, Lutz said he stands behind Millard schools' safety.
Lutz said the Millard schools are as secure as they can be as public buildings. He said schools are safer than a movie theater or a shopping mall and are “one of the safest places other than home for the kids to be.”
“To our knowledge, we have a sound safety plan that is in place in all of our schools,” said Lutz, 63, Millard's superintendent since 1995.
Since the Columbine school shooting in Colorado in 1999, Millard has joined the national trend in increasing school security. All three high schools and two middle schools are staffed with armed law enforcement officers called school resource officers. Unarmed guards are stationed inside front doors at high schools to meet and direct people entering the building.
All schools have security cameras and safety plans, and staff members wear identification badges. Lutz said the district has employed consultants and works closely with Omaha police on security drills. The district started a school safety tip line and set up a mass communication system, which was used frequently Wednesday.
In the wake of the shootings, some have suggested adding metal detectors to help keep guns out of schools. Asked Thursday about that idea, Lutz dismissed the suggestion, saying it wouldn't stop a suicidal student.
Asked if the school's front-door security guards should be armed, Lutz said that's why Millard has school resource officers.
Said Lutz: “It's a public school. We've tried to stay away from a bunker mentality.”
One matter Millard will review involves the shift change Wednesday of two front-door security guards. The security guard at the front door when Butler returned was not the guard who escorted him out after his suspension.
On Wednesday afternoon, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes said, the senior walked into the school without displaying the weapon and signed in before proceeding to Kaspar's office.
Butler had been called into Kaspar's office about 8:10 a.m. Wednesday and given a 19-day suspension for damaging school property.
Butler and another Millard South student were caught Saturday afternoon driving two vehicles on the school's artificial turf football field and running track. According to a police report, a red Honda and a black SUV left numerous acceleration marks on the track and tire marks on the field. No damage estimate was provided, but each student was ticketed by police for trespassing.
Regarding the guard shift change, Lutz said he didn't know if Butler's suspension had been communicated to the second guard.
Butler returned to the school around 12:45 p.m. armed with a handgun owned by his father, an Omaha police detective.
Lutz said that if a suspended student returns calmly to talk with an administrator, common sense would lead the staff to want to talk with that student.
“All our people are caring, giving people,” Lutz said.
Kraig Lofquist, Millard's director of pupil services, said Butler was treated fairly according to the district's code of conduct. District policy doesn't specify a minimum punishment for damaging school property or unlawful activity — although the maximum sanction for either offense is expulsion.
When destruction of property is involved, Lutz said, a suspension would be on the lighter side of possible punishments.
District officials declined to discuss specifics regarding Butler's suspension, although they said his actions also included trespassing and reckless behavior.
As school resumes, the extra security and staff at Millard South will be temporary.
Along with the school resource officer, the Police Department had a couple of extra officers on hand during arrival and dismissal Friday, said Lt. Darci Tierney, a police spokeswoman.
In addition, the school district had extra staff present and monitored students as they came in the building, Friedman said.
Millard South's DECA group, meantime, is working on three projects — a T-shirt, a remembrance bracelet and red, white and blue ribbons — to sell for the benefit of the Case and Kaspar families.
Lynn Hill, a Millard South business teacher and DECA adviser, said students came up with the ideas. “They want to help others,” she said.
Some students were looking forward to school Friday.
Senior Kevin Knudson, 18, said it's right for students to get back to business. Carrying on would honor their fallen assistant principal, he said.
Said senior Blake Headley, 17, “I think we should get back to school and move on and heal.”
“We'll get through it.”
World-Herald staff writers John Ferak, Michael O'Connor and Rick Ruggles contributed to this report.
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