Investigators say they believe Scott Westerhuis a Platt resident and Administrator for the Mid-Central Education Cooperative, committed suicide in mid-September after he shot and killed his family and set his home on fire.
The incident followed the termination of a $4-million dollar state contract with the Mid-Central Education Cooperative that oversaw the GEAR UP program.
Those who formerly worked with GEAR UP now question what will happen to the six-thousand Native American students served.
The GEAR UP program has been championed by education officials for giving Native American students a boost into college. Here is State Department of Education Spokesperson Mary Stadick Smith touting GEAR UP during a 2006 interview.
“The name of the program is GEAR UP and it stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” says Stadick Smith
But GEAR UP personnel across the state no longer have a job, after State Department of Education officials ended the contract. Darla Drew is an elected City Council member in Rapid City and the former Public Relations person for the GEAR UP program. Drew says she was shocked and saddened by the incident at the Westerhuis home. She says there was no indication of any problems with the Westerhuis family prior to the incident. Drew says she’s left with more questions than answers about the on-going investigation. In the meantime though, she wonders about the 6,000 students served by the program. GEAR UP Educators were working closely with schools across the state.
“Things should be happening right now at schools that the GEAR UP staff would be doing at this time weather appearing at family nights or parent student conferences, we would have been very active in the schools by this point and talking our mantra and message of college bound culture," says Drew. And, we’re missing out on much right now. So, I’m very concerned about the ability of somebody to pull this program back together and make it succeed at this point because we’re already in October,” she adds.
Drew says the 6 week GEAR UP summer camp for Native American students at the SD School of Mines cost about a half million dollars. Officials with the South Dakota Department of Education say they are now trying to work out the details of how to move the GEAR UP program forward. They are talking both with the US Department of Education and the Board of Regents. They say the program’s future is not guaranteed at this time.