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Students learn to shelter in place

The tragic shooting deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day were met with rising horror from one corner of the nation to the other. They were also followed by a rash of threats involving other schools, including schools in western Montana.

For the past two weeks, local law enforcement and school officials have been scrambling to track down the source of these threats, gauge their severity and decide on an appropriate response, all while communicating with school staff, students, parents and the larger community.

At the same time, local students and protesters of all ages have been weighing in on the national debate concerning gun laws and school safety, bringing new energy and focus to proposals that have been hotly debated — but for the most part, not acted on — for years now.

One idea that should have been laid to rest already is the push to encourage certain school personnel to carry firearms. While various politicians at the national level have voiced support for this, in Montana, only local school boards have the authority to decide whether to allow guns in schools. And only three school districts in the state currently do. Missoula County Public Schools, thankfully, is not one of them.

It would be a dangerous mistake to allow teachers or other school staff to carry firearms in the schools. Those who imagine an armed school employee taking out an active shooter ignore the reality that even highly trained military and police officers struggle to hit their targets with accuracy in a shooting scenario. Then there’s the question of how responding law enforcement would be able to tell the difference between an armed teacher and an armed killer.

The teachers and administrators who have spoken up in public meetings recently to say they do not feel safe in their schools are not clamoring for deadly weapons. They are asking for clearer guidelines, better training and improved communication.

We should listen to them — and their students. They are the ones who spend hours each day in the schools. They are most familiar with the safety needs and security challenges in their buildings, and among their peers and colleagues.

On this important front, Missoula is heading in the right direction. In November 2015, Missoula voters approved elementary and high-school bonds that promised upgrades to every school in the district. The bonds included new technology infrastructure and other physical building features, but also addressed safety and security issues.

In the months since, the district has not only tackled improvements to physical safety in each building, it has provided active resistance training to educators and staff.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, and Missoula schools are poised to take the next steps. At a recent MCPS board of trustees meeting, some teachers noted the safety issue presented when staff are pulled from schools to participate in professional development. Missoula Education Association President Melanie Charlson reported that substitute teachers are not typically trained in active resistance, and are not routinely provided with full access to building security plans. She suggested other ways to provide training opportunities without compromising security procedures.

Another teacher brought up her recent experience trying to call attention to a student who had threatened her and other students, and expressed frustration with the reporting process.

Indeed, if there’s a lesson to be taken from individual school responses to the different threats received over the past couple of weeks, it’s that procedures can vary widely even when the threats appear very similar.

Big Sky High School, for instance, was briefly on lock-in after graffiti was found in a bathroom that said “Don’t be at Big Sky at 1:20.” Earlier that same week, school officials at Big Sky received reports that a student had made a verbal threat toward the school. The school’s threat assessment team determined it to be a low risk, and allowed the student to continue to attend school. Parents and students were not notified of the threat.

After teachers and parents raised questions about the school’s decision-making process, Big Sky administration hosted a community forum dedicated to school safety. The idea was to explain the reporting and notification process, and answer remaining questions.

Going forward, MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane has said that making sure all staff receive active resistance training should be a priority. In a message disseminated to parents a few days after the Parkland shootings, Thane noted that “preventing episodes of mass violence requires us all to be vigilant” and reaffirmed the district’s commitment to improving safety and security. He said the schools will continue to “tend to the social, emotional and behavioral needs of all of our students,” and encouraged members of the community to reach out to any individuals in need of support.

All of these aspects of school safety warrant further discussion. The school district and its administrators ought to work on streamlining reporting and response procedures, and communicating this information to all school employees. Teachers, staff, parents and students should have a clear idea of what constitutes a credible threat, how to report such threats and follow up on those reports.

The entire community can agree that guns do not belong in our schools, and focus our attention instead on listening to actual concerns from local teachers and students. Then, we can turn our attention to finding ways to resolve their concerns. These improvements would be rooted in real-life experience, ideally modeled after evidence-based methods but tailored to local needs.

When it comes to protecting our schools, good information should be our first line of defense.

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