Ex-principal accused in school fire called ‘eccentric,’ ‘conscientious’
DICKINSON, N.D. — Thomas Sander had been working toward becoming a principal for a while.
“He told me he got this principalship at a Catholic school,” adviser Blaine Ward said, “which I thought was pretty much his aim or his goal.
“He was excited about it.”
Those contacts didn’t hear much from him after he shared his news. And like many others, they were shocked to hear what happened next.
Sander is being held at the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center, awaiting further court proceedings. He’s charged with arson and endangerment by fire, both Class B felonies, after allegedly trying to burn down his school March 2.
The school terminated his employment last week.
Now, rumors swirl, and parents, students and school employees are left to wonder what led to a school divided, with grades sprinkled around other locations in Dickinson.
For a town the size of Dickinson, few knew much about Sander. He was still a relative newcomer when his life — and those of hundreds of students — abruptly changed.
Sander’s lack of community ties was a reason Judge Dann Greenwood set his bail at $500,000 cash. With no property owned here and no family in the state, he was a potential flight risk, the judge said.
In town, Sander was renting a room near the school out of the home of Rich Holgard, the Queen of Peace parish representative to the Dickinson Catholic Schools’ Board of Education.
Holgard wouldn’t comment on Sander, citing the school’s orders that Monsignor Patrick Schumacher be the sole spokesman.
With about $10,000 in savings and his cut-short $41,500 salary, Sander told Greenwood at the hearing Wednesday that he’ll hire his own attorney.
Sander, a single man and a baseball fan, has a clean record, less a couple of speeding tickets during time spent in Nebraska.
He was a little “off,” and didn’t seem trustworthy to Sarah Hellman, who worked in the school’s business office from July to January, she said. Hellman interacted with Sander daily for her accounting duties.
“You could tell that he didn’t socialize with anybody or any faculty,” she said.
“The first time I met him, I didn’t really trust him.”
But Todd Schweitzer, a local insurance agent who knew Sander casually and had him over for dinner once, said he thought Sander he was a normal guy — just a little “eccentric.”
“He seemed to be, you know, very intelligent, very thoughtful, but very cordial, very kind,” Schweitzer said.
“We’ve been involved with literally hundreds of people that have lived in our home, in foster care,” he said. “Everybody has a little different personality and … some maybe a little stranger to us than others, but I never felt like he was way out of the ordinary.”
‘A good, potential leader’
The Missouri native was born the winter of 1983, the first of four siblings.
Records show his parents reside in Chesterfield, a city of about 48,000 within reach of St. Louis.
Messages left with members of the Sander family were not returned.
Sander didn’t always work in education administration.
Before going to graduate school for that, he worked with the Boy Scouts of America and in marketing at NBC Universal in New York City.
Sander’s last home before Dickinson was near Omaha, Neb., where he was doing practicums at two schools to finish up his master’s degree in educational leadership at the University of Nebraska.
Ward, his UNO adviser, said Sander took a dual endorsement for elementary and secondary education, so he split his spring of 2013 between Belleaire Elementary in Bellevue, Neb., and St. Albert Catholic Schools’ secondary schools just across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
At both schools, Sander took on some of the principal’s responsibilities — scheduling, planning classroom improvements, budgeting and lining up parent-teacher conferences.
The practicums are a requirement of the graduate program for someone seeking to become a principal, said David Schweitzer, principal of St. Albert’s junior and senior high schools.
Schweitzer said Sander “satisfactorily completed” the practicum work at St. Albert, and that his work with the school concluded after that semester.
Ward said he was impressed with Sander.
“He worked with students and he seemed to be very conscientious (and) seemed to have a strong Christian background, a strong Catholic background,” he said, “and I liked Tom very much.”
At St. Albert, Sander also took on student counseling responsibilities — something that turned out to be a passion for him.
He’d help students get on the right track, Ward said.
“I remember one student that he was working with, the student seemed to have no motivation whatsoever,” Ward said, “and I said, ‘Well, find out what the student is interested in and then line up some activities.’”
Sander found out the student had an interest in automotives, and arranged for him to spend time at an area car dealership.
“It really turned the kid around,” Ward said, “the fact that somebody had the interest to line up something for him, to find out more about that type of work.”
Sander also got something out of the experience, and the other times he counseled students, whether academically or religiously, Ward said.
“He really found that to be a fulfilling experience, working with the kids on an individual level,” Ward said.
Few interviewed knew much more than tidbits about Sander’s hobbies or life outside of his work.
He was a baseball fan of his hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals, remembered Dwayne Chism, principal of Belleaire Elementary.
Sander, who faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, likely won’t bail out of jail as he awaits his April 21 preliminary hearing.
Federal investigators will return to the school Tuesday to continue their work.
Trinity students will resume classes Monday in buildings meant for other people.
Sander had a couple of offers when he had the chance to come to Trinity, and told Todd Schweitzer he chose Trinity because it seemed more challenging, and “that was appealing to him.”
“I had a lot of positive feeling for Tom,” Ward said. “I thought he was a good potential leader.”
Bryan Horwath contributed to this report.