Administrators at Hellgate High School locked down the campus at 1:24 p.m. Thursday, just minutes before some students allegedly had planned a shooting incident.
Another student reported that classmates said they had a firearm and would start shooting at 1:30.
The lockdown occurred after lunch. Three juveniles were taken into custody, according to a police news release. No firearms were found on the suspects or on campus and no injuries were reported.
“It wasn’t a drill, it wasn’t a joke, it happened, and we did exactly what we would do in any circumstance in which we believe that there was a firearm on campus,” said Judson Miller, the principal at Hellgate High School.
Police responded in a matter of minutes while administrators scoured the camera system to identify the students that made the alleged threat.
“Because these threats often take place in a common area and then students go to class, the video evidence helps point us to the right location and sometimes those locations are in different areas,” Miller said.
A group of students on campus-release at the time of the lockdown mingled outside, wondering what was happening.
“I’m sitting there (in my car outside the school) and then I just hear sirens and I looked up and there’s a fire truck and then some other trucks from the fire department and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’” said Devan Tripp, an 11th-grade student at Hellgate.
He spoke with an official with the fire department who told him that there was a report of a firearm on campus.
“I’ve been getting videos from my friends inside and there’s cops everywhere and they’re escorting them from room to room,” said Ian Rasmussen, another 11th grade student at Hellgate.
Law enforcement surrounded the school, temporarily blocking traffic on Gerald and Higgins. Officers in bulletproof vests with long guns entered and exited the building throughout the duration of the lockdown.
The Missoula Police Department, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Montana Highway Patrol, local probation and parole officers, FBI and U.S. Marshals all responded to the incident.
On the building’s south side along Connell Avenue, Missoula police officers began preparing vehicles to take the three juvenile suspects into custody for questioning. Each suspect was escorted into a different vehicle around 2:50 p.m.
“The three juveniles are currently being detained and parents of those detained are being contacted for continued investigation,” the police news release said.
The school will continue to work with local police to determine what charges could be filed, which could help inform any disciplinary actions taken by Missoula County Public Schools.
“There’s a wide range — suspension and expulsion — there’s just a lot of different things that can happen and we are way too early to talk about what student discipline might look like (in this scenario),” Miller said.
Parents and students gathered outside the school’s entrance near the corner of Gerald and Eddy avenues, anxiously sharing updates about what they’d heard from people inside the building.
Elizabeth Dove, who had two students inside the school at the time of lockdown, lives a few blocks away. One of her children was locked down in an art classroom and was still doing work.
Dove assumed the situation was serious but was unsure of what was happening indoors during the lockdown, as her children reportedly had not heard or seen anything to provide more context.
Regardless, she said she was anxious — and disappointed.
“I’m just so deeply disappointed in this dystopian situation, I mean the children are in there with masks because of the pandemic and during a lockdown, and I’m sure the teachers are terrified and don’t know what to do,” Dove said.
“I’m just deeply disappointed in the choices we make that led us here. I don’t think these kids are fools, they know what’s going on, and I just think about the level of disappointment those kids must feel,” she continued.
Jessica Sharkey has three students attending Hellgate but only one was in the building at the time of the lockdown — the others were in her car down the block.
Her daughter inside couldn’t answer the phone but continued to provide updates to her family via text messages.
“I’m just as close as I can be so I can get her out of here as soon as I can,” Sharkey said. “I just got to get her out.”
Throughout the lockdown, Miller provided updates over the intercom to students and staff inside the building as well as several emails to parents.
After about 90 minutes, Miller’s voice came over the intercom and explained that the lockdown was lifted. An assembly was held at 3:20 p.m. to provide more information about the situation to students and staff.
“We enacted our protocol and did not find a firearm, we did find the root cause of the issue and are working with police on that protocol,” Miller said over the school’s intercom.
At the assembly, Miller said that the combination of anxiety and relief for students and staff in the upper gym was palpable.
“Relief that nothing happened. Relief that the process worked,” Miller said. “Anxiety because it brings to light things that I don’t think most people think about every day.