Red Lake shooting survivors sue security company

By Elizabeth Dunbar
Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP) 3-08

Survivors and teachers affected by the 2005 school shooting on the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation are suing a company that had been hired to come up with crisis plans for the school, their attorneys said.

The lawsuits have been served on Burnsville-based MacNeil Environmental Inc. and will be filed in Hennepin County District Court this week, said Elliot Olsen, an attorney representing Steven Cobenais, a student severely injured in the attack.

According to the lawsuits, MacNeil lacked qualifications to come up with an emergency action plan for the school district and failed to follow through on developing and implementing crisis plans that could have helped school officials respond better when Jeff Weise opened fire at the school. Weise killed seven people before shooting himself during the March 21, 2005, attack.

“If they would have done their job, a lot of this could have been prevented,” Gregory McEwen, an attorney for severely injured student Jeffrey May, said of MacNeil contractors. “We’re hopeful that this case might bring another measure of justice to these families.”

MacNeil Environmental describes itself on its Web site as a consulting and engineering firm providing schools and other public organizations with health and safety management programs. Roger Gross, an attorney representing MacNeil, said he hadn’t yet reviewed the lawsuits and “it would be premature” to comment.

According to the lawsuits, MacNeil was to help the Red Lake School District implement a five-year program starting in fall 2001 to provide a crisis management plan, train school officials and evaluate the school’s weaknesses in terms of safety and security. Minnesota law was changed after the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., to require school districts to come up with crisis management plans.

The lawsuit says MacNeil failed to develop a four-phase plan for crisis management as recommended by the U.S. Department of Education and provided the school district with plans that were confusing, poorly formatted and contained conflicting directions for school staff. “Such a deficiency was highly likely to lead to a lack of coordination between different categories of staff during a crisis,” the lawsuits said.

Security plans for the school should have included ways to delay Weise in reaching the school’s students and staff, said attorney Richard Ruohonen, who is also representing Cobenais and his family. That could have included better use of loudspeakers, locked doors and shatterproof glass, he said.

“The whole thing about a crisis action plan ... is to delay the perpetrator at each point of entry,” Ruohonen said. “Every minute you can give lets more people escape.”

The school district paid MacNeil thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to prepare for emergencies, and now the company should be held liable for not doing that, the attorneys said.

“We are not going after MacNeil just because. We have strong, expert opinion that tells us that’s the right thing to do,” McEwen said.

Nearly two dozen people are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuits, which seek more than $50,000 for each person injured by MacNeil’s actions. Cobenais and May both suffered brain injuries and will need assistance the rest of their lives, Olsen said.

A lawsuit against the school district was settled in 2006 for $1 million and distributed among 21 families of shooting victims, but the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit “have been woefully undercompensated for their tragedy,” McEwen said.

“It’s hopefully going to be money that will help make their lives better,” Olsen added.