Parents of students in the Arlee School District are planning to attend a school board meeting on Tuesday to discuss school safety after a meeting last week left many feeling unsatisfied.
More than 100 parents packed the gymnasium at Arlee High School for a community meeting last Wednesday to discuss an Oct. 31 incident in which a student brought a pistol to school.
School officials were notified that the student, whose name was not released, was bringing a gun to school prior to the student’s arrival on school grounds that day. When the student got off the bus, a school official confiscated the firearm, sent the student home and notified law enforcement, who later cited the student for possession of a weapon in a school building.
The district waited until the following day, Nov. 1, to notify parents via a voicemail and a letter sent home with students, which said the district did not contact parents sooner because “it was determined there was no immediate threat to students.”
Parents took to social media to express their frustration with the way the school handled the situation. Many said they should have been notified sooner and that law enforcement should have been contacted immediately when the school heard the student had a gun. Others expressed concern for the safety of their students.
Arlee Superintendent James Baldwin told the Missoulian that school officials based their decision to wait on advice from the district’s legal attorney, Elizabeth Kaleva. However, Kaleva said she only advised them against sending out an emergency alert based on existing procedures, and did not specifically instruct them to wait until the next day.
Parents’ reactions to the incident led the school to hold Wednesday's community meeting, which got off to a rough start when attendees realized they weren’t allowed to ask questions due to policies structuring school board meetings.
About 20 parents took to the mic during the public comment period to share their feelings, with law enforcement stepping in at times to calm people down after they were told to stop discussing certain things, such as details involving the student.
Bruce Brazill, a parent of three children in the district, told the Missoulian his main frustration was the lack of communication with parents, law enforcement and teachers.
“It was handled wrong from the start,” Brazill said. “The principal put all those children’s lives in jeopardy when he heard that there was a gun and he never contacted the police authorities, professionals right away.”
Other parents also complained about the letter they received that stated, “Trustees were notified of the issue and the decision not to issue an immediate alert." Not all trustees were aware of the issue and Baldwin clarified at the meeting that trustees were not involved in the decision.
“That was a mistake on my part,” Baldwin later told the Missoulian. “I should have called everybody instead of emailing them.”
Lisa Dumontier-Herrid, the mother of a student at Arlee High School, said she was also dissatisfied with Baldwin’s conduct at the meeting. Several parents said he "called out" an individual who posted about the incident on Facebook and waved around the district's policy handbook saying, “I inherited this,” a statement he later repeated to the Missoulian.
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“He didn’t step up and take responsibility for how it went and in my opinion, that’s his job,” Dumontier-Herrid said.
Dumontier-Herrid said many parents left the meeting with unanswered questions about what is going to happen with the student.
In accordance with the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, Arlee's policy states that a student “determined to have brought a firearm to, or possess a firearm at, any setting that is under the control and supervision of the school district” will be expelled for at least a year.
The school board may conduct case-by-case hearings to review each incident, which may allow them to modify the expulsion requirement. Schools must also comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which may also modify expulsion requirements.
Baldwin said that he’s not allowed to share details about the status of the student due to federal privacy laws.
Dumontier-Herrid said she understands the district has to respect student privacy. She also said it’s a small community and word travels quickly, which often leads to rumors.
Brazill said he doesn't have any "ill-will" against the student, noting that the availability of more mental health resources could have helped prevent the situation. Still, Brazill and other parents left last week's meeting with the feeling that little had been resolved.
Brazill said his children have not been back to school since the day after the incident, when he took off work and accompanied his daughter to school because she was scared.
Upon arriving at the school, he hoped to find extra police, locked doors or enhanced security, but he found none of those things. “I’ve been calling absent and saying, ‘The school has not been providing a safe place for my daughter,’” Brazil said, also noting this isn't the first time he has addressed the school with safety concerns.
Baldwin said the district is working to improve safety and update its policies. He said it is working to establish a safety committee where community members can discuss concerns and establish a plan.
The district will also use money from the “Keep Arlee Schools Safe” grant it recently received to hire a mental health counselor to work with seventh- to 12th-graders. The grant will also pay for consultants to review the school’s procedures and recommend changes.
The Arlee School Board will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Arlee High School Library. Baldwin said board members will take public comment at the beginning of the meeting and discuss policies.