Missoula law enforcement authorities and school administrators are continuing their investigation at Sentinel High School after a loaded magazine from a handgun was located on school grounds Monday.
The school went under lockdown procedure around 8:30 a.m. Monday after the magazine was found in a hallway. Students were released shortly after noon to allow law enforcement and school staff to conduct a more comprehensive search of the school grounds. As of late Monday afternoon, no firearm had been located.
After completing a room-by-room search of the building and all student lockers, Sentinel Principal Ted Fuller said there was no evidence that led school administrators to believe the students and staff at Sentinel High School are in active danger. Therefore, Sentinel will run school on a normal schedule on Tuesday.
"We will have increased police presence in the school, with our usual school resource officer in addition to two to three more officers in the building, as well as an increased police patrol of the building’s exterior, our campus and the neighborhood surrounding campus," Fuller said.
Fuller said the magazine was dropped sometime before school Monday morning. A group of students, who reported that they heard the sound of something metallic hitting the floor, immediately turned the magazine in to administrators. Initial accounts said a construction worker found the magazine.
"The way it’s been described to me is that we’re moving through classes, lots and lots of kids in the hall, and this group stops, hears this sound, people look down, some keep going, a few people register what it is and then turn it in to the front office," Fuller said.
The students described to administrators the what the person they believe dropped the magazine was wearing, but didn't have a name and couldn't otherwise describe the person's appearance.
Fuller said administrators conducted searches of some, but not all, backpacks during the lockdown based on the description provided by witnesses.
The school worked with law enforcement to create a dismissal plan with police supervision at all exits.
"We felt that it was important in order to run an organized, supervised dismissal that we were explicit about where students would be dismissed based on their mode of transportation," Fuller said. "The big thing we wanted to avoid was a big collection of unsupervised students upon dismissal so we were really strategic about one, two classrooms at a time so at any given moment, we never really had more than 25 students moving through the hall and exiting."
Students appeared calm as they left school grounds around noon.
“At the beginning [the lockdown was] a little tense,” Sentinel Senior Kaylee Smith said, “but after a while, everyone calmed down.”
Logan Fischer, a junior, said the other students in his classroom were relaxed, too, despite not knowing exactly what was happening.
“I was just trying to be calm,” said Julie Vetter, a mom who was standing across the street from Sentinel waiting for her son early Monday afternoon. “I feel bad because every student and staff member is going to have to process this.”
She said the trauma from Monday’s incident stems simply from the unknown.
“In the moment, you don’t know what’s happening,” she said.
Hatton Littman, a spokeswoman for the school district, said at noon Monday there were no leads regarding who brought the magazine to school. She said construction workers and students access the school, which will be under construction for the coming year, all the time.
However, Fuller said that due to construction, the area where the magazine was found is not currently covered by security cameras, although it normally would be.
Littman said school officials were working in concert with law enforcement. Because the school district has a no-weapons policy, law enforcement is always contacted because there may be criminal repercussions as well as school-imposed discipline.
Under the Gun-Free Schools Act and district policy, the district must expel any student who uses, possesses, controls, or transfers a firearm for a year, although they may modify the expulsion period on a case-by-case basis.
Fuller said that building staff and administrators will meet Tuesday to look for areas of improvement on how to respond to crisis situations.
"Unfortunately, we live in a time when schools have been the target of violent acts and I think the biggest lesson and the biggest takeaway is that schools and organizations need to have really well-oiled systems in order to respond quickly, in order to respond accurately and in order to respond effectively," Fuller said. "I think the biggest takeaway for me as a principal is that those systems can never be left with the idea that they’re where they need to be. They constantly need to be refined."
On its Facebook page, the school district announced all afternoon and evening activities at the school had been canceled.
Any individuals with information should call Sentinel High School’s school resource officer at 406-728-2403, ext. 7611.