THOMPSON FALLS – Schools across America are re-evaluating their policies, procedures and facilities in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Thompson Falls is no different.
What is different is that rural school districts like Thompson Falls face much different challenges than urban schools, Superintendent Jerry Pauli says.
There is a limit to how many law enforcement officers could respond quickly to such an incident in a small community, Pauli says, and not enough to secure a perimeter around a school while simultaneously dealing with a shooter inside one.
What, then, if an incident occurs at a rural high school full of teenagers with cellphones?
“Within a minute or two you’d have daughters and sons texting their dads,” Pauli says. “Many people, especially in Montana, have access to weapons, so now you have the possibility of people coming onto a campus that’s not secured to rescue their children – that’s one more thing you have to think about.”
There are dozens more, from – in Thompson Falls’ case – an elementary campus with four buildings, each with multiple entrances, to classroom doors with windows that wouldn’t keep someone with a gun out even if they were locked.
Pauli and the Thompson Falls School Board recently announced the formation of a school safety task force to re-assess how students, teachers and staff can best be protected from the potential of such violence.
Don’t misunderstand, Pauli says.
The potential is minute.
The only killing at a Montana school that Pauli says he is aware of happened in 1994 on a Butte playground, where a 10-year old shot at a classmate who had allegedly teased him. The bullet missed the intended target, but struck another schoolmate in the head.
“In the history of the state of Montana, it’s easier to be struck by lightning,” Pauli says. “You’re safer in school than you are driving in a car to Missoula.”
Suicides, drug overdoses and drunken drivers pose bigger threats, Pauli says, “and I wish we had stronger advocacy in areas where we’re losing more children and adults” than die in school shootings.
Still, the superintendent says, it’s been many years since his district addressed the issue – so long that the main concern back then involved the possibility of a sniper, not that someone might walk into a school intending to kill students and adults and then expecting to either kill themselves, or be killed.
The Thompson Falls task force will be co-chaired by Sanders County Commissioner Tony Cox and city council member Raoul Ribeiro. That, Pauli says, will bring both the sheriff’s office and city police department into the picture, and what Sheriff Tom Rummel and Chief of Police Chuck Hammett tell the task force will drive the discussion.
“In this first go-round, law enforcement will be the key player,” Pauli says. “If they tell us they can have one person at the school within five minutes of an incident, then that’s the reality and we can figure out the next step.”
At the school board meeting where the task force was launched, Rummel indicated that most times during school days the sheriff’s office could have as many as five officers respond quickly to the schools, and Hammett said there would likely be two available from the city.
That’s important to know, Pauli says, because it would take at least nine officers just to block all the exits on the elementary school campus.
And his district is better off than any other school in the county, Pauli notes, because Thompson Falls is the county seat and the sheriff’s office is located in town. Response times to schools in smaller communities such as Noxon or Hot Springs could be much greater, depending on where deputies in the far-flung county happened to be at the time of an incident.
The same holds true in every rural county in Montana, Pauli says.
No school in Montana is more secure than was Sandy Hook Elementary, Pauli says, but that didn’t stop the massacre of 20 children and six adults last month.
“Our buildings are so old,” Pauli says. “The doors were made for privacy, not security. I could run through any of them, and all the windows are 2 1/2 feet off the ground.”
What’s the solution? Eliminating windows? Replacing glass in doors with shatterproof glass and installing better doors? How do you balance the risk of a possible incident that’s never happened in your community before against a school coming to seem more like a prison? How do you pay for it if you opt to fortify facilities?
Given the limitations in numbers of law enforcement and facilities, are lockdowns the best policy during an incident?
“We have parents who say no, it would be better to get them out of there,” Pauli says. “We need to decide whether lockdowns are the safest thing we can do.”
“There will be different discussions,” he goes on, from arming teachers and staff with bear spray – only law enforcement can legally bring a firearm onto school property in Montana – to installing security cameras throughout the schools, such as Bigfork has done.
Reducing the number of ways people can access school buildings is something else that will probably be discussed, but Pauli says in the case of the physical layout of Thompson Falls’ campuses, that will mean talking about another safety issue, namely, whether you want hoards of people traversing icy streets and hills to get from a parking lot to an entrance.
For Pauli, who is retiring, one of the best answers would be putting school resource officers back in schools. That not only gives you someone on campus who is both armed and trained if the unthinkable ever happened, he says, they’re also people who “have an ear to what’s going on.”
The grants that funded such positions have since run out and, like many other things, how you pay for it is a big question, especially for smaller school districts.
Ultimately, Pauli says, what parents say will weigh heavily, and he wants the task force’s meetings to be well publicized in advance. The superintendent also wants to bring in officials from the Montana Safe School Center at the University of Montana to talk to the task force and parents about ways to make schools safer.
“We need to base things on reality, not ideology,” Pauli says. “We have to look at our finances and facilities, and decide what we want to do.”
Reporter Vince Devlin covers Lake and Sanders counties for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.