Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Back home after nightmare

Manitoba students saw gun drama in Dominican

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They're home, they're safe, they may even still be sleeping -- after a harrowing night in which a man was shot while trying to protect them as four girls and their female teacher were briefly held at gunpoint.

All 26 members of a humanitarian school trip arrived back in Winnipeg at 5 a.m. Saturday from the Dominican Republic, Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine superintendent Alain Laberge said.

"A lot of crying, but they were happy to see their families and friends. They're in good hands," Laberge said. "The families asked... to be left in peace."

The group included 18 students and eight teachers and parent-chaperones from âcole Pointe-Des Chênes in Ste. Anne and âcole régionale Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

They had barely arrived in their dormitory on Thursday to begin a weeklong project helping an orphanage/school, when armed men broke in to rob them around 1:45 a.m. Friday.

'A lot of crying, but they were happy to see their families and friends. They're in good hands. The families asked... to be left in peace'

-- DSFM superintendent Alain Laberge on the returned students

"It's a project we've been doing for years," Laberge said. "It's kind of a compound, four students per room, with a chaperone.

"The burglars went to the first room. They just wanted money, cameras."

Laberge said the students were not carrying much money, because it was seen as "an invitation to be robbed."

That first room was for female members.

"One of the girls spoke Spanish. She said, 'We have nothing,' " Laberge said.

That's when violence erupted.

"The owner (of the building) quickly stepped in between the kids and the burglars," he said. "All the students in the other rooms went into their closets, hiding."

The owner, whom Laberge has been told is Canadian, was shot several times and is in critical condition. The gunmen fled, and police soon arrived.

The five people in that room saw the man shot, Laberge said. He was uncertain Saturday whether any of the DSFM group would be asked to return to the Dominican Republic to testify in court.

Things happened fast that night. The teachers phoned their principals, Laberge was awakened in the middle of the night, he called school board chairman Bernard Lesage, and Laberge alerted his staff to start finding a way to get the group home as quickly as possible.

Given the time difference, it was already 4 a.m. for the students, and police were everywhere, so Laberge concluded the dormitory was the safest place for them for the time being. They later bused to the airport in Puerto Plata and spent Friday evening at the airport in New York City. The DSFM managed to get them on a late flight with connections that arrived here at 5 a.m. Saturday. They'd left Winnipeg at 1 a.m. Thursday, so none of the 26 had had a real decent sleep night's since they were last in their homes on Tuesday.

Laberge said that the DSFM has been supporting the orphanage school for years through similar trips, without incident, but there will be a lot of discussion before deciding whether there will be any future trips.

Meanwhile, the DSFM will have its crisis-response team in the schools Monday, though Laberge has told the families and the teachers they should only return to school when they're ready.

It's the least of anyone's concerns, but the division is covering all the costs, Laberge said.

"We just want them to be the best they can, and safe right now," he said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2014 A3

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