In a stairwell that leads to an art room of the Nawayee Center School in south Minneapolis, there is a sign that reads: “This is a no drama zone.”
“We stress that this is a safe place for our students,” said Mary Cullen, the assistant director of instruction. “It’s a place where they can be themselves and be creative.”
But when Cullen came to the small charter school that serves mostly American Indian students on Monday morning, she found the place trashed. Chairs and tables were overturned, doors were broken open. Vandals had spray-painted gang graffiti on the walls, on a washer and dryer used to clean the clothes of students who may be homeless, and on the art projects of the 45 students who see Center School as a second home, maybe even a first home.
Cullen said cleaners apparently forgot to reset the alarm over the weekend.
A broken back window still had a board over it. Missing were two vans used to take the kids on field trips; eight computers; cameras and video equipment, and even the school’s hamster and the little ball that allows him to roll around the classrooms during school hours.
“The kids love the hamster,” said Cullen. “They even stole the snacks we keep for the students, and some Midol. ...”
Jasmin Omana, 17, a senior at the Center School, which serves kids in grades 7-12, stood in the hallway. “Did they steal Spike?” she asked.
Spike is the pet bearded dragon. Somehow, Spike survived.
Omana had been working on an art project for nearly a year, a painting of a polar bear with the earth behind it. The vandals spray-painted over it.
Omana spoke quietly. “I just don’t know how people can do this,” she said sadly.
Five suspects were stopped by University of Minnesota police officers inside one of the stolen vans early Sunday, and Minneapolis police later discovered the burglary. Two of the juvenile suspects are students at the school, making the burglary more difficult for everyone in this close-knit building. Most everything has been recovered, including the hamster.
Cullen surmised that someone with a connection to the school was involved because they broke into the cabinet and found the keys to the vans. Plus, the destruction of student projects “makes it feel personal,” she said.
On Monday, the school staff and administration set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise $10,000 to repair damage and replace any goods that don’t get returned by police. By Tuesday, they already had $12,000 in pledges.
“We’re always poor,” said Cullen. “So anything helps.”
Bob Klanderud, a Dakota Indian and part-time employee who works with the male students on issues of identity, looked dejected as he walked around the school. While students and staff had already picked up the debris and painted some of the walls, there were still broken doors and smears of paint down a hallway.
“This is a critical school,” Klanderud said. “It serves a small number of students, but for them, it’s critical. It’s the only place some of them have that is safe. Our teachers are the best. They care about each and every student.”
The school has small, personal classes and uses a “culturally focused curriculum,” in which students learn through traditional Indian methods. Some of the kids are at risk, others have struggled in regular public schools. Most attend because they form close relationships with teachers.
On Tuesday, the scent of burning sage wafted through the building. As students arrived for class, they rang in through a security door and other students got up to let them in.
Joe Rice, executive director of the school, said this could be a teaching moment.
“Potentially, it could be very disturbing for the students,” said Rice. “It’s an invasion of their safe space. What I’m encouraging people to think about is how this is an opportunity to get stronger.
“Our students need to deal with this kind of adversity all the time,” Rice added. “Our ultimate goal here is to teach kids to be resilient.”
The quick community response also helps financially and emotionally. Most of the donors had probably never heard of the school before, Rice said. Donations between $5 and more than $1,000 had come from the neighborhood and as far away as the East Coast.
Nawayee is an Ojibwe word that means “the center,” where students are encouraged to “find their center and find our collective center in the Indian community.”
By Tuesday, amid the splintered doorjambs and broken glass, it appeared that the center had held.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin