by Jim Boyle and Nathan Warner
The Elk River Area School District’s crisis response team has been thrust into action again this year.
This time it’s to prepare for the return of students and staff from spring break at Zimmerman Elementary School.
Siblings Nolan and Josephine Shields will not be coming back to school. They and their mother were found dead in their Zimmerman home on Easter by a family member who discovered them at about 10 a.m. and called 911.
“Josephine Shields and her brother Nolan were part of our Zimmerman Elementary School family, and we are deeply saddened,” Principal Susan Johnston said.
Grief counselors are and will continue to be at the school to support students and staff.
According to Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, three were deceased in the house when deputies arrived minutes after the discovery was reported at 10:03 a.m.
The scene has been processed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab. Investigators from both the Sherburne County Criminal Investigation Division and the BCA continue to gather information and determine what occurred at the residence.
The investigation into the deaths of three individuals on the 13000 block of Fifth Street South is proceeding, and he expects more information to be available as the week progresses. The neighborhood and community, as well as local and Twin Cities media, have been pressing for answers, but little has come forward so far.
“Thank you for your patience during the early stages of this investigation,” Brott stated in a press release.
The victims were identified Stephanie Shields, 35, Zimmerman; Nolan Shields, 7; and Josephine Shields, 6. Shields’ husband Mark Shields had recently moved out of the home when the couple separated.
All three victims were transported to the Ramsey County Medical Examiners Office.
Additional media releases and or a news conference will be presented once more information is gathered and preliminary autopsy results are obtained, Brott said. Investigators are not looking for a suspect at this time, Brott has stated.
Meanwhile, the school district’s crisis team met today to develop a game plan to help children and staff deal with the tragedy when school resumes after a week-long break.
Resource materials that can be shared with families about how they can talk to their child about the loss of Josephine and Nolan have also been made available at the school.
In respect to the school community, administrators on the crisis response team have requested that the news media and public allow Zimmerman Elementary School students and staff return to school without interruption.
The crisis team met earlier this year in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, and changes in the district’s approach to security were enacted.
This time the tragedy did not happen on school grounds, but its impact will transfer from the community to the school on Tuesday.
Nolan was a second-grade student at the school, and Josephine was a kindergarten student.
“This is unbelievable,” Superintendent Mark Bezek said. “I have tears coming out of my eyes. When you see the pictures of these kids, your heart breaks.”
The news began to rock the family’s neighborhood more immediately, especially as churches across Zimmerman let out from Easter morning services and police tape began going up.
Since the fog and shock descended, what little information has been shared has swirled with mix of rumors through the community and across social media.
Brott called off any thoughts of a news conference on Monday afternoon until the investigation is further along. Additional media releases and a news conference will be scheduled at a later time as more information is gathered and preliminary autopsy results are obtained, Brott said.
Brott has stated all along that investigators are not looking for a suspect at this time.
Zimmerman Mayor Dave Earenfight said in all his 40 years of calling the community home, no tragedy like this had ever happened.
“Our community is country,” he said. “We live together, we work together, we pray together and today, we’re mourning together for members of our family as a community.”
The Shields’ neighborhood reacted to the tragedy with patience and prayers.
“News is getting around about our neighbors,” LeAnne Bye posted on Facebook. “A horrible thing happened and three people are no longer with us. Please pray for the families.”
Bye lives one house down from the Shields’ home, which stood out from the surrounding homes with its dark red siding just beyond the Zimmerman Home and Garden Center.
“I saw them walk their kids past my driveway all the time on their way to the park,” she said. “It’s just so hard to believe they’re gone.”
No stranger to tragedy, Bye, whose son was killed two years ago in a tragic car accident, called on people to guard their words and avoid spreading rumors, reflecting that the hurt and shock for the family is likely unbearable.
“I’m not being ‘preachy,’” she explained, “but the last thing families need at a time like this is to overhear rumors and speculation about an event that has cut deeply into their hearts.”
Speaking from experience, she said she was hurt when she came across rumors swirling about her son’s death. “I can only imagine how this family feels right now,” she added. “I’m still in shock from it.”