After several hours of learning, sharing ideas and listening, the large committee tasked with identifying safety concerns in Missoula’s public schools landed on several key issues Tuesday night.

• If there is a threat to a school, how can teachers and staff be empowered to act and keep students safe in that critical time – that zero to 40 seconds – it takes for emergency responders to arrive once the call for help goes out?

• How can schools be safer without negatively impacting education and the welcoming atmosphere?

• Improving safety and security at Missoula County Public Schools facilities will cost money – what is the district willing to do to ensure whatever new plan is created will move forward?

More than 25 people who volunteered for the Public Safety Advisory Committee gathered at the MCPS Business Building to help identify core elements that are important for public safety and to develop recommendations to move a districtwide plan forward.

The committee of concerned parents, teachers, police officers, fire officials and members of the medical community responded to MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle’s call to help create a safer school environment after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.

Guided by Ginny Tribe, a longtime Missoula resident and respected facilitator, the 2 1/2-hour meeting clipped along effectively, prompting focused and respectful dialogue that has laid the groundwork for solutions.

After learning about the crisis plan MCPS already has in place, which has been significantly overhauled by MCPS risk manager Burley McWilliams since 2010, the committee immediately got to work identifying gaps in the system.

While school drills and emergency response practices are important, the skills need be to practiced on a more regular basis, said Brad Giffin of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department.

Not only do teachers and staff need to be empowered to think and act during a crisis to improvise weapons and escape routes, he said, but the district needs to improve interior and exterior identification systems so responders can pinpoint the exact area of crisis as quickly as possible.

More drills and thought need to be directed to awkward times of the school day, such as when students are walking from class to class, during recess at lunch and during inclement weather, said several MCPS teachers, including John Marks.

All members of Missoula emergency response agencies – including the highway patrol, fire department and sheriff’s office, and not just the Missoula Police Department – need to be familiar with the district’s crisis plan and any changes that are made to it, said Chris Lounsbury, the director of Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management.

When asked about best practices nationally, Burley explained that there is no standardized training, policies or procedures when it comes to school safety.

“Everyone grabs all the information out there and then writes their plan from that,” he said. “That’s what we did.”

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir reminded the committee that statistically, children are safer in school than in their own homes.

“No plan is perfect,” he said. “There will be individuals that slip through the safety net.”

***

During the public comment portion of the meeting, MCPS custodian Daniel Geary made a heartfelt pitch to the committee and school administrators to improve basic first aid training for staff.

Shootings such the one at Sandy Hook are rare, but everyday emergencies unfold at schools – choking in the lunchroom, a peanut allergy turning into anaphylactic shock, being hit on the head on the playground – and there aren’t enough trained people to respond immediately to the crisis, he said.

Holding up a wordy poster with images explaining how to give CPR, Geary said he wouldn’t trust himself to be calm enough if he had to read the directions in a real emergency, and that’s the only CPR information he’s had access to while employed with MCPS.

It only makes sense, he said, to give first aid skills to custodians, who are in the school around the clock, and other staff who are not directly in charge of multitudes of students and who easily could be freed up to help out in emergencies.

When Tribe asked the committee, “What are you really worried about in the area of public safety?” Muir was the first to respond.

“The biggest challenge is not the violent, criminal acts (which are rare), ” he said, “it’s the fear of those acts.”

His concern, he said, is having the school community “feeling comfortable when they go about their business without the nagging fear of becoming victims.”

“We could spend millions and millions to harden our facilities, but the reality is the problem is already in the school and there are ways to beat the system,” he said. “How do we make people feel that things will be OK?”

For teachers, there is one single, pressing concern, said Paul Johnson, the principal of Washington Middle School.

“It gets down to, ‘What do I do when the shooter comes into my room?’ ” he said. “When the chaos happens, what is expected of me?”

At the close of the meeting, Tribe assigned the committee homework.

Each member was tasked with reaching out to four to five people with the same questions they were asked during the evening, talk with them about the responses and ideas that were shared, and bring those findings to the next meeting.

The committee will reconvene in April to further the discussion and hammer out solutions.

Committee member Beth Williams said she would like to further explore the notion of “active resistance” for school teachers and staff.

Bob Mitchell said he would like the committee to better define empowerment for teachers, and how that idea might be embraced by teachers given the litigious society we live in.

Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier was concerned about improving safety training for volunteers and substitute teachers, and improving “situational awareness” training.

Toni Rehbein, chairman of the MCPS board of trustees, expressed her admiration of the committee’s respectful and thoughtful work, and then aired what was on her mind.

“How do we incorporate all of this information into a plan with ABC implementation,” she said. “This will cost money. ... How do we make it happen? How do we pay for it?”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

(9) comments

hellgatenights
hellgatenights

When Tribe asked the committee, “What are you really worried about in the area of public safety?” Muir was the first to respond.

“The biggest challenge is not the violent, criminal acts (which are rare), ” he said, “it’s the fear of those acts.”

HUH? My biggest concern is the fact we have an incompetent, political hack instead of a police chief.

2nd Biggest concern......is the janitor, tradesman or and other "non-teacher" people on campus walking the halls. Did the district perform background checks? If so, did they perform them annually?

John P Weber
John P Weber

Toni Rehbeing is actually not capable of caring about students in MCPS. If she was there would be money to help the students, teachers would not have to buy supplies with their own money. As one who was educated in Missoula schools during the 60's and 70's i find the current state of affairs in our schools to be beyond stupid, this due to a board that cares more about enriching themselves and the Superintendent than educating students.

Payin'Taxes-Gettin'Hosed
Payin'Taxes-Gettin'Hosed

Holy moly Rehbein is a loon. She wants to have the power, wants to have the money, but that big ol' foot keeps hiking back to her mouth for a good chewing.

Things have become comical. How sad.

Remember voters, even if a transient runs against her, vote for the transient.

Whew!!!

MTNimrod
MTNimrod

" If there is a threat to a school, how can teachers and staff be empowered to act and keep students safe in that critical time – that zero to 40 seconds – it takes for emergency responders to arrive once the call for help goes out?"

Really? 0 to 40 SECONDS???

I highly doubt that. More like 5-20 MINUTES.

So how does THAT change the discussion?

Roger
Roger

If you have to call someone for help, it's already too late.

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

totally agree...where they got 0 - 40 seconds is beyond me ...unless they have armed custodians or something.

part of the Mob
part of the Mob

Fighting 4 Msla hit it right out of the park: Rehbein is a political hack, but lucky for her, Missoula is plumb full of ill-informed voters.

But what was more distracting from this meeting was the fact that certain groups had to be prompted to openly say what the meeting was about!!! The folks picked to help prevent mass murder in our schools couldn't even say it!!!! And these are the same people we are to trust to protect our children!!??

It was political correctness and liberalism on parade. You had to see it to believe it!!! And then to have Rehbein spout off how glorious everything is was enough to make a transient puke.

I am 1000% it will take a school shooting to get anything worth while done in this school dist to protect our kids. Don't believe me, then I challenge all of you who did not attend the meeting to get a copy and watch it.

If you have faith in Rehbein to make the necessary changes to protect our kids, then you would also believe Obama will not raise taxes on the middle class....oops....that already happened.

Buzz Feedback
Buzz Feedback

If Toni Rehbein didn't exist, The Onion would have to create her.

Fighting 4 Missoula
Fighting 4 Missoula

.The last sentence in this article is a quote from Chairwoman Toni Rehbein. She states, "How are we going to pay for it?" This is in reference to safety procedures for MCPS.

Toni - Why is it that you have not asked that question in advance of all the spending that you and other board members have pushed for all the years you have been on the Board (since 2004)?

Some examples - The superintendent raises that you have approved since 2004, the administrative raises you have approved since 2004, the Health Sciences Academy, the International Baccalaureate Program, 21st Century learning initiative and all the technology and other costs associated with it, the costs of closing and selling schools, the leasing of a public school (Prescott School) to a private school Missoula International School(the school for which you served as president for 2 years and vice president shortly before you ran for the school board - and yes this lease is costing the district $500,000 a year!), etc., etc., etc.,

You, Toni, have used the school district for all your pet projects and to help your friends and didn't care how any of these projects would be funded before they were implemented. You have now advocated for increasing fees for families to attend sports programs, getting rid of traditional classes such as home economics, cutting positions, etc. etc.

Your actions have contributed to low moral in the district as expressed at the meeting at Sentinel High just a couple of weeks ago - the one which was attended by 500 people. These citizens expressed dismay on many aspects of your leadership, however, you seemed to not care about their grave concerns.

NOW, you are asking how something will be funded, something that actually has true importance for the district?! Only when something is not one of your pet projects do you care about the cost.

Just another indicator of why YOU, TONI REHBEIN, have caused such chaos for Missoula families in the last 9 years not to mention the millions of dollars you have passed on to the taxpayers of this county. YOU, TONI REHBEIN, need to be voted out of office in May along with your minions SCOTT BIXLER, JOE TOTH, AND DRAKE LEMM.

Incidentally, I did not read about anyone recommending arming our teachers or other staff to provide a way to deal with an attack on a school. This needs to be part of the discussion.


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