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Big Sky High School Community Forum

Big Sky High School Principal Natalie Jaeger talks to parents and answers questions at a community forum in the school's gymnasium Thursday hosted by administration to discuss safety and security.

In the Sentinel High School gymnasium Tuesday, at the end of the school’s annual “Respect Assembly,” Principal Ted Fuller delivered a brief speech on school safety, focusing on what he believes is the root of this country’s school violence problem.

Students who had just been playing a basketball scrimmage — a mixture of varsity and Special Olympics players — huddled together in the middle of the court before their cheering peers.

“Take a look at what’s out here at center court,” Fuller said into a microphone. “This is what a safe school looks like.”

He asked how many students in the bleachers had read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and most of the hands in the assembly shot up. “Not the Sparknotes, not the Sparknotes, the real book!” Fuller clarified.

He read them an excerpt to illustrate his point.

“So, Atticus Finch is the lawyer and the father in the book,” Fuller said. “He says to his son: ‘I wanted you to see what real courage is. Instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.'

“I want each of you to think about courage, and ask yourself: am I courageous, strong and brave? And I’m not talking about the courage and strength to be better than someone else, or to dominate another person. I want you to ask yourself, do I have the courage to connect?”

Connection is what makes a school and a community safe, Fuller said, before dismissing his students to fourth period.

Fuller repeats that message to his students often, he said later, though he knows that's not all it takes.

Since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, student survivors have been outspoken and impassioned about the lack of gun regulations in the United States. All around the country, other students have been affected by their message, planning school walk-outs and calling for safer schools.

In Missoula, where since Feb. 14 numerous graffiti threats, verbal threats, Snapchat threats, and BB-gun threats have sent schools into lockdowns or caused panic among parents, things are also changing. Parents, teachers and students have expressed to Missoula County Public School leadership that they need to know more about how schools assess threats.

Students and staff have called for more trainings to know how to protect themselves in an active shooter situation. They’ve asked that school entrances be better controlled, and that there be stricter punishment for false threats against a school.

Those requests have been heard, and already school officials are changing how they do things.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012, when 20 children and six staff members were killed, MCPS also made some changes to improve school safety.

Following that tragedy, the district formed safety committees, who partnered with local law enforcement to find ways to improve the district’s emergency preparedness. The “active resistance” training that staff are now expected to complete was recommended by the safety committees, said Missoula Police Officer Mark Puddy.

“It incorporates three action plans: evacuation or run, locking down or barricading in your area to deny access to that threat, or if you have to, fight or confront that individual to prevent them from hurting people,” Puddy said.

Since 2013, Missoula police have been offering free, 8-hour “active resistance” trainings to the school district. Only about 40 people can be trained at one time, Puddy said, in order to maintain the right instructor-participant ratio. Until now, most of the trainings have been offered on Saturdays or on staff professional development days, which has made it difficult to reach everyone.

To date, about 58 percent of staff, or 623 out of 1,058, have been trained in active resistance.

“It is a required training, but not mandatory,” said MCPS spokesperson Hatton Littman. “That’s because we have previously offered the trainings at times that occur in individuals’ personal time.”

Littman said the training is tricky to require for all staff because it can be somewhat traumatic. It involves role-playing a real shooter situation, with the sound of fake bullets ringing through school hallways.

“The training is designed to simulate a real event in order to allow people to practice how they would respond to a real event,” Littman said. “We recognize we've got to take care of people who might have a hard time experiencing that.”

That said, the training can also be empowering, and staff are requesting it be made more accessible, Littman said. Burley McWilliams, MCPS operations and maintenance supervisor, has worked with the district on safety and implementing trainings for 10 years.

“Active resistance training is a really beneficial tool that I believe every teacher should go through,” McWilliams said. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think teachers go through their educational routes and ever think they’d have to have a training like this, but I think we can all agree as a society that society has changed.”

McWilliams said it empowers staff by giving them more options than just to hide. They can run, or they can fight. 

“I think the more options you have, the better chance you have in situations like that,” he said.

McWilliams said it’s expected that teachers will share what they learned with students. Otherwise, students won’t understand what to do when they hear “run, lock, fight!” in an emergency situation.

While some teachers have taught their students what to do, others have not, and with less than 60 percent of all staff trained, many teachers wouldn’t know what to tell their students anyway. Some teachers have augmented their training by buying pepper spray or heavy bolts to throw at an intruder.

At a parent forum on safety at Big Sky High School Thursday night, Principal Natalie Jaeger told parents that she held a forum for students, in which they told her they wanted to be trained as well.

“What I realized at our student forums last week is that our staff has had all this training, but we had not shared that with our parents, and we had not discussed that with our students in any way,” Jaeger said. “That’s a big disconnect for us, not to include our students and our parents in that information.”

Training students would have to be different from training staff, McWilliams said. He’d need to develop an age-appropriate curriculum for elementary schoolers through high schoolers. At the very least, students need to know some common language.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, some people have suggested arming teachers or allowing those with concealed carry permits to carry their guns in schools. In the Montana Legislature last year, a proposal to allow teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons in classrooms and on school property failed.

However, a little-used policy does allow school boards to give permission for someone to carry a weapon in schools, with no additional requirements. According to the Billings Gazette, only Lima, Belfry and Custer schools had an armed staffer as of last year.

MPD Officer Puddy, who trains school staff in active resistance, said there is a lot of extra training associated with giving non-law enforcement personnel weapons in schools, and it makes sense that it’s a topic of discussion.

“But there’s so much more to it than just giving somebody a gun to confront somebody,” he said. “And we have proactive measures that we can deliver very effectively already, rather than just giving somebody else a weapon to confront that individual.”

Beyond trainings, school security can be managed to some degree by securing buildings. Some of the newly renovated MCPS school buildings have one main entrance with locked perimeter doors. Many have not yet received their security upgrades as part of the Smart Schools 2020 bond, or are still under construction.

Sentinel Principal Ted Fuller has a daughter at Hellgate High, where construction dust has set off the fire alarm several times. In Parkland, the shooter pulled the fire alarm to lure students into the hallways.

“She’s said, ‘Yeah every time the fire alarm goes off, I get this pit of anxiety and my friends do too. What's the situation?’”

High schools generally have an “open campus” model that allows students free movement throughout the day. At Big Sky last week, many students said they feel unsafe with so many open doors. In response, Principal Jaeger is requiring everyone to enter and exit only through the main entrance from here on.

Emergency exit alarms will be installed at perimeter doors so they can’t be used freely.

Sentinel had already planned to issue key cards for students to enter locked perimeter doors, as they have four separate buildings. That's a process Principal Fuller says he’ll advocate accelerating.

Communication with students and parents about threats is also changing, though administrators say it’s a difficult balance between informing people and not causing undue panic. At Big Sky, parents now receive emails about threats, Jaeger said Thursday.

Principals resist the the idea of installing metal detectors and searching students bags’ every day. There’s a balance to strike between maintaining a comfortable culture and keeping people safe. Jaeger said she used to work at a school with metal detectors in Boston, and a student notified her one day that another student had a gun in his bag.

Even with so much security, he got it through, proving to Jaeger that the most foolproof security measure is creating a culture of accountability. Students and staff need to report what they see, whether it’s someone strange in the hallways, an overheard threat, a weapon in someone’s bag, or a student who is struggling with mental health issues and needs support.

“I will never stop building a safe, secure culture,” Principal Fuller said. “That’s work that’s never done. There isn’t a measure of that where I’m gonna go ‘Oh, x number of students report that they feel safe and secure and like they belong, so we’re gonna stop working on that.’”

Fuller brings up the statistical improbability of a school shooting to remind himself it needn't keep students from coming to school or parents from sending their kids to school. But those numbers don’t account for emotional reality and fear, which he also realizes.

“At the same time, I absolutely do not have the belief that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’” he said, motioning quotation marks with his fingers. “Because that is naive and foolhardy to think. Because it is something that has cut across every demographic and every geographic boundary and every cultural boundary in the United States. Which is another thing that makes it a big problem. It doesn’t discriminate.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Missoulian.