Four days after a dropped ammunition clip prompted a lockdown and evacuation at Sentinel High School, its response and future plans faced scrutiny.
Students at Sentinel High found an ammunition clip fitting a handgun around 8 a.m. Monday, prompting school administrators to place the campus on lockdown, then evacuate all students to allow staff and law enforcement to thoroughly search school grounds. No firearm or other signs of danger were found Monday, and normal classes resumed Tuesday.
At a forum Thursday evening that drew about 60 guests, Principal Ted Fuller, joined by Sentinel administrators, school district leadership and Missoula Police Department officers, voiced satisfaction with how things had gone overall.
He explained that while the clip had been found around 8 a.m., he waited until about 8:25 a.m. — when students were in classes for first period and he had contacted key staff — before initiating a lockdown.
“If I had any indication that we had an active threat in progress, I can assure you I would have initiated a lockdown process immediately,'' he said. "But it felt prudent, it felt safer, it felt more secure to lock the building down when I had individuals on site that could initiate a lockdown in the safest most secure way.”
As he walked the audience through Monday’s events, Fuller acknowledged several weak points in security.
Sentinel’s public address system has seen periodic outages due to construction and is due to be fully operational again by the end of the month.
Therefore, Fuller said, he not only made an announcement, but notified teachers using a messaging app, sent out an email, and had the school’s assistant principals and Superintendent Mark Thane walk the halls to notify teachers.
Fuller said he’d received reports of some different lockdown procedures taking place in different rooms. “That is a problem and one that we will remedy,” he said, adding that the school planned its next lockdown drill for Jan. 30. In future lockdowns, he added, faculty and staff will signal the step with a loud whistle blast.
The school’s surveillance cameras, which Fuller said would likely have revealed the identity of the person who dropped the magazine, were also down because of the construction due to be completed this fall. In the meantime, he said that the district would work to install a contingency system, with cameras in high-traffic areas, within the next few weeks.
During a question-and-answer session that lasted nearly two hours, several parents praised Fuller and school staff for their response. But others raised deep concerns about the school’s security moving forward and pressed Fuller on what could be done differently.
Several voiced a desire for metal detectors at school entrances. Fuller, who repeatedly reminded the audience that he could not make major decisions alone or on the spot, demurred. “I don’t believe that building schools that are high-security facilities with wanding of students and frequent randomized searches and detection devices are the way to keep a school safe, and I think that they create environments of heightened stress.”
Fuller and audience members spoke at length about the logistics of securing doors in the multi-building campus, the search procedures the district and Missoula Police employed and the ongoing investigation, as well as the lockdown procedures themselves.
In response to reports of “restroom emergencies” during the lockdown, Fuller said the district would consider buying 5-gallon “lockdown buckets” with supplies for those situations.
Several parents voiced a desire for students to have access to cell phones during lockdowns. But that would defeat the point, said choir teacher Jessica Franks.
“I will not be concerned with your kids sending or receiving messages” in a lockdown, she told the group. “I am concerned with saving lives ... Our job is to make sure that nobody gives it away that we’re in that space.”
Afterwards, Franks said that “my first [teaching] job was in New Jersey when 9/11 happened, and the amount of response that we give to our situations is light-years beyond” the response to that attack.
Asked if she saw any room for improvement in Sentinel’s protocols, Franks said she was “impressed with what we have in place and I am dedicated to following it until I’m told differently.”
“One of the things I tell my kids is that no system is perfect, but you have to pick a system.”