SCOTLAND - Kevin Lein’s message Friday night was simple: always wear clean underwear.
One year ago, on Sept. 30, 2015, Lein was serving as Harrisburg High School principal when he was shot by one of his students. At approximately 10:00 a.m. that day, Mason Buhl, 16 at the time of the incident, confronted Lein in his office with a handgun and fired a single shot. Lein said he didn’t see Buhl until he rounded the corner, then saw the gun briefly before it was fired. The bullet hit the ulna and humerus bones in his right arm, then his chest.
Following the shooting, Lein said, investigators took his clothes and he was left only with his underwear - which were clean, thanks to him listening to his mother’s advice years ago.
“I learned two things that day. One: Always listen to your mother, because my mom had always told me to make sure you have clean underwear on, and they take all of your clothes when you get shot,” Lein joked. “And, two: Stay in good shape in case you have to walk out in front of your colleagues in your underwear.”
Since that day, Lein has focused not on himself and his own healing, but on the well-being of his students and staff, and preparing others for similar situations, enlisting humor and optimism as tools to do so.
On Friday night at the Scotland High School gym, Lein was upbeat in speaking to more than 20 people about his experience a year ago and how he’s learned to deal with the aftermath.
Scotland Superintendent Damon Alvey said the idea for Lein’s presentation came after a community member saw Lein speak in April and approached Alvey with the idea of bringing Lein to Scotland. So Alvey made it happen, inviting administration and community members from Scotland, Menno, Tripp, Avon and Bon Homme school districts.
Before becoming principal in Harrisburg, Lein was a middle school teacher for the Mitchell School District for three years, and was a coach and teacher at Dakota Wesleyan University for 16 years in full- and part-time roles. He was also a principal in the Hanson School District.
With years of education experience under his belt, Lein took to Scotland to promote his positive message.
“I’m not quite sure why these things happen,” Lein said. “But it has made us into something better.”
Students in the Harrisburg School District have taken to the phrase “Harrisburg Strong,” Lein said, and have recognized that it is a one-time situation, comparing the shooting to a lightning strike - quick and random.
And although not everybody has forgiven Buhl for the shooting, Lein has.
“I forgive him completely,” Lein said. “He’s been sitting in jail for a year and three weeks, he’s not getting an education or help from anybody. Some staff, some people I’m around won’t forgive him, but I know a lot now about the things going on in his life and he just hit a point of pure desperation.”
While Buhl has been in jail, Lein, Harrisburg and the state of South Dakota as a whole, has begun moving forward.
Lein doesn’t believe schools need to have staff armed with guns - and the Harrisburg district doesn’t. He said the only regret members of the staff or school district have about the shooting is that there wasn’t a person Buhl felt like he could reach out to.
“What’s going to save us is sincerely knowing and caring about the person next to you more than yourself,” Lein said. “If you can be that unselfish in your life … then we’re going to be OK.”
Since the shooting, the Harrisburg School District has made some changes, including adding classroom numbers to each classroom’s windows and keeping snacks on-hand for diabetic students in an emergency situation.
But, after an hour-long presentation full of questions, jokes and life lessons, Lein said he wants people to remember that a person can’t control what happens to them, but their reaction to a situation is what’s important.
“This is not my message, it’s South Dakota’s message,” Lein said. “It’s not about what happened to us, but what we do after that, and we’ve been so lucky. We’ve thrived.”