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Schools look to security upgrades with latest massacre top of mind

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | August 7, 2022 12:00 AM

School security has again come under public scrutiny in the wake of the May 24 shooting massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Multiple public school districts in the region have scheduled security site assessments through Michigan-based Secure Education Consultants (SEC). Those districts include Columbia Falls, Creston, Evergreen, Kalispell, Kila, Troy, West Glacier, West Valley and Whitefish.

SEC conducted recent audits for other Montana districts, including Great Falls Public Schools and sent keynote speakers to a Montana School Boards Association event focused on creating safe learning environments. Kalispell Public Schools’ board of trustees approved conducting site assessments in June and Superintendent Micah Hill said he connected with neighboring school districts to see if they wanted to use SEC’s services and collectively work to find funding to bring the firm back to Montana.

“We just thought it was a great opportunity to have a full-scale evaluation — things we can do better both from the human perspective, but also from a physical safety perspective,” Hill said.

Over the past decade, a lot of construction has gone on in Flathead County schools with building security listed as a top priority — and continues to be an area of continual improvement — as school shootings occur around the nation and recommendations and best practices change.

Each school building faces unique challenges.

Emily Sallee, director of the University of Montana Safe Schools Center, said building security in her visits to Montana schools have ranged the gamut from schools that have secure entrances to others where “You just walk in.”

“That discrepancy is important,” Sallee said.

SEC’s site assessments will include examining building design features; technical and physical security measures; emergency equipment; review of policies and procedures; and interviews with staff. Findings will be compiled into a districtwide report.

Over the past year, Hill has been in conversations with other AA administrators in gathering different perspectives on how schools are tackling social media threats of violence as they become more commonplace.

During a July interview with the Daily Inter Lake, Hill recalled a December 2021 incident involving a post to the social media site TikTok for prompting the discussion. The threat, which was later deemed not credible, but involved a lockdown at Glacier High School, had included the acronym “GHS” and was part of a nationwide TikTok challenge to post false threats of violence as a way to get out of school.

“Those types of things you have to react. You have to take into account,” Hill said.

During a phone interview, Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Moore also mentioned the TikTok challenge and rise of social media threats of violence as one of the reasons for its recent security audit by SEC.

“It’s kind of a new ballgame for us. We wanted to know how to communicate better with the community,” Moore said.

“We’re interested in their opinion — in our current era — what needs to happen,” he said, giving an example of how active shooter response recommendations have changed from telling students and staff to hide from an attacker as the first option, to now being advised to run and evacuate when possible.

OTHER CYBERATTACKS have compromised school computer systems through ransomware. Notably, in 2017, hackers gained access to data and sent a ransom letter that raised enough concern that all Flathead County public and private schools canceled classes for three days and reopened once law enforcement saw no indication the threats came from Montana.

While social media threats have mostly been made by adults in the past few years, in a recent case in May, an alleged threat against Columbia Falls Jr. High resulted in the arrest of a 14-year-old, who potentially had access to unsecured firearms in his home. In a follow-up to the incident, Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters said he could not divulge the results of the investigation to protect the identity of the minor.

The Uvalde shooting has added a sense of urgency as concerned calls and emails about what local schools were doing started coming in.

“With the Texas shooting, things were being called into question [from] concerned parents, community members, just what are our protocols and things like that,” Hill said.

“We don’t actually publish those,” he added, citing potential safety issues in disseminating that information.

“I feel pretty good about what we’re doing as far as our protocols and things we’ve done,” he said, such as lockdown drills and active shooter training.

Hill said district employees participate in active shooter training but students do not. Research has shown it may increase feelings of anxiety in children. What students are required to do during lockdown drills is also different between upper and lower grades.

“One of the things we talk about, and maybe what’s hard for parents sometimes to understand is what’s developmentally appropriate for students. How a high school student is going to react versus how a kindergarten student is going to react [is] completely different,” Hill said.

Sallee and Nancy Berg, Montana Safe Schools Center assistant director, agreed that the extent of what’s asked of students during lockdown drills should be differentiated among ages. They said lockdowns are not always a result of potential attacks. It could also stem from a gas leak, medical emergency, or a bear on campus.

“At the end of the day, anything we’re trying to do from a safety perspective is to mitigate loss of life and injury,” Hill said. “When you’re a classroom teacher, a building administrator, or any staff member in the building, what you hope is that they’re trained to get the students to follow the direction of the adult.”

Cory Clarke, Kalispell Police Officer and team leader of the department’s school resource officer program, said each school building and campus has unique challenges, which is why it’s important that all students and staff follow protocols and procedures.

Kalispell, Evergreen, Columbia Falls and Whitefish have school resource officers through their respective police departments. Outlying, rural districts, such as Bigfork, have school resource officers through the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, thanks in part to a grant.

“As (law enforcement), we continually work with schools to find a balance between operating in a complete lockdown state and being able to function and continue to serve their intended purpose, as a school. This all must be done keeping in mind the structural and budgetary challenges each school faces. This is where training and awareness must come to the forefront. Everyone must be diligent, keeping safety and security in mind while still being able to function in their assigned roles,” Clarke said.

An exterior door being propped, or held, open by someone, for example, was not uncommon in Clarke’s experience as a former Flathead High School resource officer. He had no problem with removing door stops he encountered whether or not someone was nearby.

“It’s all about the little things,” Clarke said.

Clarke said situational awareness is crucial in safe schools. Kalispell Public Schools employs about 750 people and has a student body of more than more than 6,160 students. On top of that there are daily visitors and volunteers.

With that many people coming and going from buildings, which aren’t always connected, Clarke emphasized the importance of being aware of what’s going on around you and, as Homeland Security sums it up, “If you see something, say something.”

“If you hear something don’t ignore it. Gunshots can sound weird,” Clarke said. “Your mental state might say it’s nothing, but at least tell someone.”

School tip lines are available in some districts. Currently, there is no central, or statewide, tip line, and is done on a district-by-district basis. Schools without tip lines may set one up for free through the Safe Schools Center, which works with SaferMontana. Sallee said it’s easy to do.

“What schools need is to have a point person, typically an administrator, a counselor, or a lead teacher, who receives the tips,” she said.

SCHOOL SAFETY goes beyond the physical building and encompasses mental health and well-being of students and staff.

Identifying people who may need extra support and interventions may be the place to start in creating safe and secure schools.

“Originally, the focus was on physical safety and active shooter trainings, which we still offer,” Sallee said, referring to schools’ responses to nationwide school shootings.

“In recent times, we’re incorporating what safe schools mean in terms of emotional and mental well-being. There is so much more of a schoolwide attention to the culture and sense of belonging and value within that system,” Sallee said, emphasizing topics such as resiliency and putting more resources around suicide prevention and postvention.

“Students’ perception of feeling unsafe has increased,” Sallee said, citing Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey result trends.

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis exposed by the Covid pandemic.

Hill said a lot of energy and effort has gone into trying to identify students who may need additional support and connect them with resources. Kalispell Public School also has a program called “Handle with Care” where police officers can fill out a form notifying applicable staff if a student has had contact with law enforcement outside of school.

“Usually specific information is not shared within Handle with Care, just you know, something happened that might affect the child’s day, or week, or month,” Hill said, such as a domestic disturbance, a parent’s arrest, a family death or accident or a child being removed from the home.

When a potential threat is reported, Hill said a threat assessment is conducted.

“We have a standardized procedure and document we use in doing that. It’s probably a very widely-used document across the state, maybe even across the country,” he said.

Sallee said the data collected needs to include both academic and social factors — what’s happening at home, what support a student is receiving and what help is still needed.

“Addressing undesired behaviors is critical, but assessing threats or suicidal ideation should be assessed through ‘holistic data collection,’ before doling out consequences,” Sallee said.

“Prevention is key,” a 2019 U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence report stated. The analysis looked at 41 incidents of targeted school violence in K-12 schools from 2008 to 2017, building upon 20 years of research by the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

“Because most of these attacks ended very quickly, law enforcement rarely had the opportunity to intervene before serious harm was caused to students or staff. Additionally, many of the schools that experienced these tragedies had implemented physical security measures (e.g., cameras, school resource officers, lockdown procedures),” the report stated.

According to report, “There is no profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school that has been targeted,” although key findings showed:

— All attackers experienced social stressors involving their relationships with peers and/or romantic partners.

— All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors. Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack.

— Nearly every attacker experienced negative home life factors.

— Most attackers experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms.

— Most attackers were victims of bullying, which was often observed by others.

— Most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions. Many had prior contact with law enforcement.

“Just from a school safety standpoint one of your best defenses is looking for red flags in either behavior or speech or mood or attitude,” Hill said.

OFTEN WHAT stands in the way of efforts is funding. With school resource officer programs, Kalispell pays 75% of an officer’s salary. In large districts, this typically means officers are assigned to more than one building.

When it comes to the security site assessments, the cost is $2,000 per building. With an estimated $60,000 needed to cover the costs, an ad hoc committee of individuals made up of Kalispell City Mayor Mark Johnson, Snappy’s owner BJ Lupton, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, and Lucy Smith, past director of the disbanded Flathead Community Foundation, assembled to answer the call.

“We don’t want money to be a barrier,” Garner said.

The group has commitments totaling $55,000 he said.

Garner understands the need for schools to review safety. Garner served as the Kalispell Police chief when the school resource officer program started in 1999 — the same year as the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“The look of school safety and the response has changed dramatically over the last three decades in our country and so the response has had to change,” Garner said. “It requires us to be involved in strategic planning and best practices.”

He would like to see donations continue to help schools fix any discrepancies found in the site assessments.

As to the status of state and federal efforts related to funding for school security?

“A part of why we wanted this to be a local, community-based response is because we’re not willing to wait for those other debates to happen. The Legislature is not in session until January, right, so federal and state funding will be dependent on action they take next year and we think this needs to be done now,” Garner said. “We’re glad to be a part of making sure this happens.”

The Safe Schools Center itself operates on a $1 million grant in its final year. The university has applied for a three-year renewal and is waiting to find out the status of its application in the fall.

Funding for mental health efforts has also become a challenging situation for Montana Schools.

Securing consistent funding for ongoing efforts related to school safety, security, and mental health is like “grasping at straws,” Sallee said.

Even so, schools are also limited in their ability to add or fill mental health positions due to a shortage of qualified mental health professionals, particularly in small, rural schools, according to Sallee. The Safe Schools Center offers telehealth services as an option for schools lacking access to mental health care. Currently, three Montana schools access the services, which Sallee said is small but significant. Availability is dependent on the number of availability of the university’s counseling interns, Sallee said.

The Safe Schools Center will participate in the third annual Jeremy Bullock Safe Schools Summit Aug. 8-10 in Butte. The goal of the summit is to end violence in schools, according to https://jeremybullocksafeschools.com. The summit is named after Jeremy Bullock, an 11-year-old who was shot and killed in 1994 by a classmate at Margaret Leary Elementary School in Butte.

This year’s theme is “School Safety — Fostering Resilience.” The summit is designed for teachers and administrators, law enforcement, school mental health professionals and nurses. Scholarships are available.

Hill said he understands the community’s concern about what schools are doing in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.

“While it may not be readily apparent, there are things that are happening and are continuing to happen. Would I ever say that we’re at 100%, no, but are we striving for that, yes. Having this consulting company come in is just an example of here’s things we can do to identify how we can be better in terms of being proactive, and then in terms of reaction, what can we do.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

photo

A touch screen security system for signing in parents, volunteers and visitors is shown at Edgerton Elementary in Kalispell in this 2016 file photo. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake file)

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