“It has been an unusual week,” Natalie Jaeger, principal of Big Sky High School — which has dealt with four separate threats to the school or its students in the last week — told parents at a forum on school safety Thursday night.
The school typically sees that amount of threats in a year, Jaeger said. After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead, Missoula students, parents, and staff have been especially concerned with the way schools handle and communicate threats.
In the Big Sky High School gymnasium Thursday night, around 60 parents convened to hear a short presentation from Jaeger about that process, and to ask questions related to safety.
Jaeger explained how the school assesses a threat, which involves a team of school and law enforcement professionals. Low-level threats typically take a full day to assess, she said. The team interviews everyone involved, meets with each other, talks to the student who made the threat, meets with each other again, calls parents, and determines whether the student has access to weapons or other means to carry out an attack.
Prior to this week, that process did not include notifying all parents of the threat.
Jaeger said the school has already made changes in response to the past week’s events. Parents were not notified last week of a student's threat because it was deemed low-risk by the threat assessment team. Afterward, though, parents contacted Jaeger with complaints and concerns.
Some said they found out about the threat in the news or on social media. From now on, Jaeger said, parents will receive an email about threats made against the school.
“You knowing that, and you knowing more about what your students are hearing and what processes we’re going through, will help you be a more informed parent community, will help you make good decisions, but also will help you ask for changes that you want,” Jaeger said.
To show parents what staff have been taught to do in response to an active shooter, Jaeger played an excerpt of a video all staff are required to watch each year. It explains the run-hide-fight response. Many Big Sky staff have also been trained in “active resistance” as well, Jaeger said.
Other changes have also been made to improve the school’s physical security. This week, all students have been required to enter through the main entrance only. In a similar forum held for students, Jaeger said having multiple open entryways was a concern to many.
Emergency exit alarms will be installed on all perimeter doors so that people cannot enter or exit freely. Jaeger also said students had never been briefed on the school’s security measures and procedures, like threat assessments, until last week at the forum.
The school also will have more security measures implemented as part of its Smart Schools 2020 bond. MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane moved up meeting with an architect by six months to begin planning how to improve security at the school. Cameras will be installed as part of that process.
“Have we figured it all out? Absolutely not, and last week was a big learning curve," Jaeger said. "And I'm frankly sorry that it was so hard on you and so hard on us and so hard on our students.”
Parents took turns stepping up to the microphone to question Jaeger and other school administrators, or to share their own thoughts about how threats were communicated to them last week.
James Dawson, who has two daughters at Big Sky, said students should not be given a “smack on the wrist” for making threats to the school.
“Let’s make sure kids understand what they’re playing with and what kind of emotions they’re sending through the community,” he said.
Jaeger said she agreed that only having in-school consequences, like suspension, doesn’t deter students the same way legal consequences do. She said she’d never advocate ticketing students for all mistakes, but this situation is different.
“In this instance, a disorderly conduct ticket or a disturbance ticket — I think we now are in the zone where students have to have legal consequences, because a school consequence is not as onerous, not as burdensome,” she said. “Just like when a student punches another student and receives an assault ticket, we need to think about there being a consequence for making a school threat.”
Another parent, Scott Holgate, said the most frustrating thing as a parent was how “secretive and private” the process of investigating threats was. He said he’s happy with the changes that have been made as a result of parents’ concerns, and that there shouldn’t have been a question about contacting parents about a threat two days after the Parkland shooting.
A different parent brought up educating students about what to do in the event of an active shooter. Jaeger said while teachers had been trained, most didn’t tell their students about what they learned. She said students told her at their forum that they wanted more information, and MCPS will start to figure out how and what to teach students.
Students also don’t receive emails or notifications about a threat the same way parents now do, which one parent said was shocking. Jaeger said they almost exclusively communicate with parents, but it may be time for that to change, possibly with text alerts.
“I think this is a time when we are listening to the voices of our youth and it’s changing the way we do things, and I think this is the first time I’ve felt that around school safety,” Jaeger said. “And as an educator, it’s one of the first times I’ve felt it this strong.”