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Nelson sentencing provides closure; St. Croix Central still healing

A number of St. Croix Central School District staff agree Justin Nelson’s sentencing on Dec. 20, provides a sense of closure to staff and students. They also agree it’s only one step in the long process of healing from the fire Nelson set on April 30, that destroyed parts of St. Croix Central Elementary.

Tim Widiker

District administrator Tim Widiker said he agreed with the judge when he said a generation of students no longer has to be afraid that Nelson could do this again.

“Our kids, including those in kindergarten, never have to be afraid of being harmed by Justin the rest of their school careers,” Widiker said of the sentencing Nelson received.

Nelson, 26, of Roberts, was sentenced to 20 years initial confinement and 10 years extended supervision Dec. 20. He pleaded guilty to an arson charge in early September. Charges of burglary, criminal damage to property and possession of THC were dismissed.

“I’m glad our school is going to be safe from him causing damage,” Widiker said.

Widiker said the sentencing has provided closure for some staff members, though they have all been negatively impacted emotionally and will continue to be.

“It wasn’t just the fear about safety,” Widiker said. “It was the added stress of rebuilding, restocking and all the hours of extra work. Many teachers and office staff lost personal items that had sentimental value. They are still ordering supplies and filling out purchase orders.”

Widiker joined the SCC School District in mid-June, so he wasn’t an employee at the time of the fire. However, seeing the community and regional support the district received after the fire made him proud to join the district.

“I guess there was a silver lining from this tragedy,” Widiker said. “It was very heartwarming to see all the support in such a short amount of time. I am most proud of how we rallied. It only took us four to five days to prepare the Girl Scout camp for the students. More than 300 volunteers showed up to help.”

The fire, which destroyed the library, front offices, nurse’s station and several classrooms, forced students and staff to finish the school year at Rolling Ridges Girl Scout Camp near Hudson.

“Moving back into the school was like an early Christmas present,” Widiker said. “I was so happy for them. It was one more step in closure: the first day of school, moving back into the offices in November, the sentencing. It’s a long healing process.”

Widiker is impressed with the resiliency of the elementary school staff.

“I want them to know how much respect I have for them and what they’ve been through,” Widiker said.

Dr. Heidi Weisert-Peatow

SCC Elementary principal Dr. Heidi Weisert-Peatow said she has been struggling with the fire issue even though she wasn’t employed by the district at the time of the fire. She moved from the West Coast to begin as principal in July.

“I’ve been so preoccupied this fall with picking up the pieces and getting the school up and running,” she said. “But I believe we are so blessed to live in a country that has a quality judicial system in place.”

Weisert-Peatow said she trusts the system. She said many staff members sent comments, sorrows and opinions to the judge before the sentencing.

“I appreciate the quick timeliness of the sentencing and the sense of closure it brings,” Weisert-Peatow said. “It’s a new start for us for 2014, before the anniversary date of the fire.”

The principal said it’s been a challenge for teachers during the construction because two grade levels essentially had to be rebuilt: kindergarten and second grade. Teachers who had files of clever ideas and built-up classrooms from years of experience have had to start back at square one, Weisert-Peatow said.

“I know some teachers feel badly because there’s not as much detail in what they’ve been doing,” Weisert-Peatow said. “It’s been difficult for me due to the fact there were no files left for me. They were destroyed in the fire. I was left with two pieces of paper. I’ve had to invent things from my own experience.”

Weisert-Peatow said the school has a long way to go before having complete information and resources back in place.

“I know what I don’t have through my experiences as a principal,” Weisert-Peatow said.

Seeing how caring the community and neighboring schools are has been highly motivational for her, she said.

“It made it that much easier for me to want to get here, moving from Seattle,” Weisert-Peatow said. “Seeing how people care for their children and other people’s children.”

Weisert-Peatow feels that while the district is strong, it’s not completely healed yet. She likened recovering from the fire to a broken bone having its cast removed.

“A year from now, I think we’ll be stronger,” she said. “We’re not necessarily up and walking on two feet, but we’re on the mend and will have a good finish to the year.”

Luke Fritsche

SCC fourth grade teacher Luke Fritsche said yes, justice was served with Nelson’s sentence, but “It’s hard to put a number on the mindset of our community and what happened to our school, physically and emotionally.”

Fritsche said while the sentence provides a bit of closure, the best sense of closure will be time.

“We will need to take opportunities to talk, heal, moving forward,” Fritsche said. “The sentence helped. Healing internally will take time and will help.”

Fritsche said while his classroom wasn’t one of those destroyed by the fire, it was a challenge to see what the fire did to the people he cares about.

“Sometimes it’s even harder to watch others recover,” Fritsche said. “We’ve had to have some tough conversations with the kids. There’s a lot more to it than cleaning up after a fire. It’s being there for everyone who needs you.”

Shelly Clay

SCC second grade teacher Shelly Clay’s classroom was completely destroyed in the fire. Yet she chooses not to focus on what was lost, but on what they still have.

“My initial reaction to the sentencing is yes, it provides closure,” Clay said. “It’s time for all of us to be able to move on. But it was our job to move on a long time ago, for the kids.”

Clay, who has taught at SCC for 13 years, lost everything in her classroom. She said the experience allowed her and others to be role models for the kids. It taught them how to problem-solve and cope.

“Recreating and reordering hasn’t been a major factor for me,” Clay said. “As teachers we have to adapt to what the kids need. It’s alway been about the kids. Taking care of the kids was the biggest hardship.”

Clay said they were fortunate to have use of the Girl Scout camp and the incredible community surrounding the students.

The elementary school plans to honor the police officers and firefighters who responded to the fire on Jan. 17. No time has yet been set. The public is invited to an open house at the elementary school from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 20 to see the new additions and remodeled areas.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in February 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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