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?”