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The US Secret Service took over BRHS ahead of first lady Jill Biden’s arrival

MaryCait Dolan

Earlier this week First Lady Jill Biden visited Bethel along with a delegation of female Native leaders to promote the expansion of broadband coverage in rural Alaska, including the Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, CEO of Bethel Native Corporation Ana Hoffman, the first Lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy, and Bethel’s mayor Rose Henderson.

For days before the First Lady landed in town, rumors swirled around Bethel. There were even rumors that the president himself might show up. And as the secret service trickled in, planning and logistics were complicated.

At first, the event was planned on the riverfront, but bad weather loomed; and on the day of the first lady’s arrival, Bethel woke up with a fresh coat of snow. Ultimately, they decided to go with the high school. Before they could start setting up for the federal delegation..

“So we had our band concert scheduled here, for last night, for a number of weeks”, Bethel Regional High School athletic director Darren Lieb said. “The next day Biden was scheduled to arrive in the evening – so while the students sat in class, the Secret Service started securing the school.”

They would clear out the set up that night, and start preparing the gym for graduation on Friday.

Kids stuck around as metal detectors were set up in the hallways and security staff swept the school.

Classes got lost in the shuffle, as announcements over the intercom directed movement around the building. It may have been easier to just let the kids go for the day, but Lieb says it’s tricky to make last minute changes to a busing schedule.

“So our buses, they're on a system so Wednesday– Gladys Jung Elementary– they get early released today. And so we couldn't have early release because of them,” Lieb said.

But the kids seemed to enjoy the commotion.

“I didn’t notice they were here until like 50 of them just walked into the cafeteria while we were doing work,” said Freshman Jayden Culp.

Mehmet Alimi wore a suit and an American flag pin.

“I was very intrigued by the Secret Service. And them actually coming to Bethel. So I introduced myself. And I was able to have like a 30 minute conversation with one of them,” Alimi said. “They actually gave me this, this pin right here.”

Other students said they felt protected, as secret security swarmed the building in their uniforms, ear pieces, and holstered guns.

During lunch the secret service took over the cafeteria, so students played basketball in the gym. Then, they took over the gym, so instead of PE, students helped teachers with chores, and hung out by the front entrance of the school.

By mid-afternoon the entire school was heavily controlled. And that led to some confusion. Just before the last period of the day, kids were unsure of where to go, and worried about being kicked out of wherever they end up. Teachers tried to keep things under control.

As the 4 o’clock bell rang, students quietly threw around theories about the CIA, passing through newly assembled metal detectors stationed in the front hall of the school.

As the school day ended, students poured out, just as a crowd was beginning to form outside. A line started, and it snaked out of the entry, and down through the parking lot.

There was a raffle going with airpods and ipods to entice the crowd to arrive early to go through security.

And, as the crowd moved inside to head to the gym for the event – security was tight – journalists were corralled into one area and told to stay put, with duress of being kicked out to the back of the ever longer line.

But the crowd was excited. Hugh Dyment mentioned past visits.

“I think it's great with someone from the federal government wants to come out ,” said Dyment. “Kennedy was out here in the late 60’s, as part of sort of addressing poverty issues and stuff.”

Jerry Fredericks was excited to see all of the women up on stage including U.S. Representative Mary Peltola and Ana Hoffman who heads up Bethel Native Corporation.

“We're so proud of Mary and, you know, Ana, our local hero,” said Fredericks. “And just bringing Jill here. It's something. You can hear me trembling. So it was fun. I never thought. I've lived here all my life, and I'm almost 60, and I never thought anything like this could happen.”

And Catherine Cedars said, she wants to know more about the promised high speed internet. “We need that out here. We had no data today.” Cedars said. “And I was supposed to have a Zoom meeting with DC today this morning. No internet. So we really need this out here.”

It took a few days of frantic preparation, and it looked like a lot of chaos. But in the end Jill Biden made it.

Biden told the crowd, “You know I wanna say thank you to all of you for standing out in the cold, apparently a lot of you had to be out there for a couple hours, and I apologize for that. But I’m glad that you’re here, and that’s it’s nice and warm inside.”

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.
Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.