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Little Falls shooting: Two communities find strength amidst shared tragedy

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PILLAGER — Tuesday was a typical school day at Pillager High School.

Superintendent Chuck Arns said despite the disturbing events of the last few days, he was relieved to see things on campus at Pillager are pretty normal.

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“We didn’t know what to expect,” Arns said.

Pillager High School student Nicholas Brady Schaeffel, 17, was one of the two teens shot and killed Thanksgiving Day in the rural Little Falls home of Byron David Smith.

Schaeffel and his cousin, Haile Kifer, 18 were allegedly caught burglarizing Smith’s home at the time of the shootings.

Arns said Pillager School had nine grief counselors available Monday for students who needed help processing through the gruesome and very public details of the final moments before their classmate’s life was ended.

“It’s difficult to process — both for kids and adults,” Arns said. “It’s a grievous time for a lot of people.”

Pillager School counselor Sue Turner said she has been impressed with the resilience of the students and staff on campus.

“I’m pretty proud of our staff and of our students,” Turner said. “Yesterday was a normal school day. We wanted to make it as normal as possible — our kids needed it.”

Turner said anytime Pillager faces a tragedy involving its students the school sets up a crisis team to help students and staff cope with their feelings. “We want them to know we care about them — we’re here to listen,” Turner said.

Pillager School teachers were informed Monday morning of the tragedy and high school teachers were given a brief statement to read to their classes, explaining the loss. Students were allowed to meet with grief counselors to talk through their feelings and ask questions if needed.

Turner said most students she spoke with just needed someone to recount memories with as they processed the news.

“What I have found is I can’t fix things,” Turner said. “They just want someone to listen as they share their memories.

“The good thing is they are open to sitting down and talking about it.”

Nicholas Brady Schaeffel, a junior, was a new student to Pillager School, having enrolled for the fall 2012 semester.

In Little Falls, students, teachers and community members are still reeling from the loss of two of their own. Schaeffel attended Little Falls Community High School his freshman and sophomore year before transferring to Pillager. Haile Kifer was a senior at Little Falls.

Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones said news of the deaths was on everyone’s mind as classes resumed Tuesday following the holiday weekend and planned in-service day, Monday. “Our focus is reaching our to the kids and families of our community,” Jones said.

Jones said on-campus counselors were available to students needing to talk to someone. “We will continue to be offering services to families and kids as they need them,” Jones said.

Jones said he was particularly moved by the outpouring of support from communities and school districts across Minnesota expressing their concern for the community of Little Falls.

“We’ve really appreciated the contact of other school districts,” Jones said. “People have really responded to us as a school district and reached out to our kids.”

Jones said he received a phone call Friday night regarding the shooting deaths giving him, and staff and faculty a couple of days to cope with the information before school resumed Tuesday.

“Like many schools, we’ve faced tragedy before,” Jones said. “Tragedy is tragedy. What adds to this is how many people are struggling with the logic of what is alleged to have occurred.”

On Monday, curious and mourning members of the Little Falls community drove by the rural Little Falls home of Byron David Smith hoping to catch a glimpse of the house set far back off the road barricaded by a spray-painted sign that read, “Keep Out.”

Among the visitors were Little Falls high school students Alex Janey, 18, and Michael Carll, 15, classmates of with Schaeffel and Kifer. Janey, a senior at Little Falls Community High School said he just thought it was a bad situation that got out of control.

“I just think he should have just called the authorities and let them deal with it,” Janey said. “The extent was way too far.”

Liberty Nunn, a family friend of the victims, attended Monday’s news conference looking for some answers to the growing number of questions surrounding the incident on Thanksgiving day.

“It’s just not right,” Nunn told the media Monday. Nunn said she didn’t understand why such force was needed for an incident that took place in broad daylight or why Smith didn’t immediately call authorities. Smith told investigators he didn’t want to bother the sheriff’s department on the holiday.

“What about the families that had to have dinner without their children,” Nunn questioned. “I hope he goes to jail for a very long time.”

SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at sarah.nelsonkatzenberger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5879.

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