BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A principal accused of setting fire to the North Dakota high school where he worked had passed background checks and came recommended by clergy and mentors in other states, a school official said Thursday.
Thomas Sander, 30, is charged with felony arson and endangering by fire or explosion after a fire early Monday that heavily damaged Trinity High School and forced its closure. He remained jailed Thursday afternoon in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond. He did not have a listed defense attorney Thursday.
Sander was hired in Dickinson last July.
"He's a graduate of a well-known and prestigious prep school in St. Louis. He has graduate degrees in administration," said Monsignor Patrick Schumacher, the board chairman for Dickinson Catholic Schools. "With his qualifications, recommendations and work ethic, we made the decision to hire him."
Sander, who has master's degrees in administration and education and was completing a master's program in theology when he was hired, graduated in 2008 from the Magis Catholic Teacher Corps at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. University spokeswoman Cindy Workman declined to release any other details, citing school policy and federal law.
Recruits to the Magis Catholic Teacher Corps make a two-year commitment to teach in certain Catholic schools throughout Nebraska and South Dakota. Sander went to Holy Ghost Catholic School in Omaha after graduating.
The Rev. Greg Benkowski at Holy Ghost did not immediately respond to questions about Sander.
Sander was an administrative intern at St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from mid-January to mid-May 2013, while he earned his master's in administration from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. It was an unpaid position, and Sander was not a school employee, St. Albert President Joseph Connolly said.
Connolly said he did not know Sander well, but there were no problems with him during Sander's time at the school.
"In that role ... he was doing a lot of watching and listening, kind of taking in what's going on," Connolly said. "His performance and his behavior with us was what we would expect out of somebody with that position."
The Dickinson job was Sander's first full-time principal position, according to Schumacher. He said Sander had a good work ethic but did make some mistakes. Schumacher declined to give details but said they were issues that any first-year principal might deal with.
"I will not say there were no issues," Schumacher said. "But I will say there's no way in my mind the issues could have added up to this."
He declined to say if Sander was sanctioned for any reason during his tenure.
Sander announced to faculty on Feb. 10 that he would not return next year, but Schumacher would not say whether that was Sander's decision or if the school was letting him go.
Sander is accused of setting the contents of a file cabinet on fire, starting the blaze that caused extensive damage in the school's office area, structural damage to the ceiling there and heavy smoke damage throughout the building. No one was hurt, including a teacher who lived in an apartment on the second floor of the school building.
Schumacher labeled some of the undisclosed details of the case that he has been privy to "bizarre." He did not elaborate.
"There's a lot of speculation as to how this may have happened," he said. "Every scenario has gone through my mind. I think I've exhausted the possibilities in my mind to try and understand what was going on in his mind. I just don't know. There are no answers."
Classes were called off for the week. They are to resume Monday, with the 170 students spreading out among two elementary schools, a junior high school and a church.
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