As parents send their children into the new school year and teachers welcome them into the classroom, safety is on everyone’s mind.

When it comes to student safety, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and Montana schools take a comprehensive approach. Student safety is not just school security; it is also promoting mental health, multi-tiered systems of student support, and building infrastructure.

Student safety is a top priority at the OPI. That is why we have taken the lead to secure crucial federal and state resources that will directly assist schools in supporting their students during the 2019-2020 school year.

Last year, Montana received a STOP School Violence Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Since then, the OPI has begun revitalizing the Montana School Safety Advisory Committee and created numerous online and in-person professional development opportunities for educators in coordination with the University of Montana’s Center for School Safety.

The OPI also helped redirect existing state-level education funds into local school safety grants through the 2019 Montana Legislature. In addition, the OPI has been working with local districts and counties to ensure that they have emergency operations plans and Interdisciplinary Child Information and School Safety Teams in place as required by recent legislative sessions.

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The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 37% of Montana high school students felt hopeless for two weeks or more in a row, up 10% from 2009. The same survey showed that 20% of students had contemplated suicide, up 7% from 2009. The OPI is encouraging schools to use their new federal Title IV-A funds to create programming specifically around student health, support and safety. There are also numerous resources available online at opi.mt.gov and additional local resources in each school and community.

Finally, the physical health and security of students and their data is critical. For this reason, the OPI has led the way in bringing schools to the table as the Department of Public Health and Human Services considers new rules to ensure that drinking water and air quality are safe for Montana students. The OPI also participated in a school cybersecurity panel this month with the Department of Homeland Security, school leaders and elected representatives from Montana. The OPI continues to make student and school data security a priority at the state level.

It is Montana’s commitment to school safety that led the U.S. Department of Education to invite the OPI to participate in President Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety, which led to the creation of a report of best practices that schools can consider. Further, my colleagues at the Council of Chief State School Officers requested that Montana have a seat at the table on their School Safety Steering Committee, which led to a state-by-state repository of school safety resources.

Student safety will continue to be Montana’s priority this school year, and into the future.

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Elsie Arntzen is Montana's superintendent of public instruction. 

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