Semester of threats looms over efforts to prepare Western Montana schools for violence

Posted at 4:49 PM, Apr 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-26 18:49:54-04

MISSOULA – It’s a tough, terrible fact, but mass shootings, particularly at U.S. schools are becoming a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean school communities are not fighting back.

School safety has been the topic of discussion this semester. It erupted across the nation after the Feb. 14 Florida school shooting where 14 students and three teachers were killed.

It was a parent’s worst nightmare. The day Nikolas Cruz opened fire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, sending students and teachers in a panic.

Now in the weeks since the Florida shooting, schools across the country have been receiving a wave of copycat threats.

According to the Educator’s School Safety Network, more than 1,400 "school-based incidents and threats" have been made since the Florida school attack.  That’s roughly 1,800 schools across the nation impacted since the Parkland shooting. 46 percent of those threats involved actual guns while 45 percent of these incidents were made through social media. 

This wave of threats, occurring at at least seven different schools, showed up here in Western Montana.

A Darby High School student was accused of making threats through Snapchat. The Charlo School District investigated a note containing a bomb threat. Shots were fired when a Big Sky High School student attempted to run over a school resource officer.

Over the past four months, schools across Western Montana have found themselves dealing with school safety incidents and all eyes are on administrators to find solutions.

So, what are schools doing in the case of an act of violence?

Kristin Wilson, the principal at Linderman Elementary, says a safe place to go to school is the first step in learning.

“I think the number one important thing we have to remember is we have to have a plan, “ Wilson said. “If we aren’t educated on what the best practices are and what reasons will keep kids safe best, then we actually aren’t really doing our job.”

And hardening schools has been at the forefront of the school safety discussion. In the aftermath of the Parkland Shooting, President Trump said one solution to school shootings is arming teachers. 

Trump added, “When we declare our schools to be ‘gun free zones’ it just puts our students in far more danger."

Although arming educators is still an idea, Polson High School teacher Adrienne Barnes is concerned about the amount of stress teachers already have on their plates.

“There is a ton of pressure, “ Barnes said. “It’s already a job that you have to wear so many different hats and you have to add another one about trying to, not just provide for the emotional security of your students, but the physical security. How do I keep them safe? They are why I do this job. They are my passion and my love. How do I keep them safe?”

Politics aside, these teachers spent a day learning how to disarm a suspect, self-defense and how to react in different safety scenarios. This is something that Polson Superintendent Rex Weltz said is a starting point.

“For all of us in this business or any public organization, you really want to get out of that scenario,” Weltz said. “You’re going to want to run. Get yourself locked down the best you can. Get out of sight. That, at all costs. If those two don’t work then fight. So the run, lock, fight is the principal of the national standards that all organizations are working under. “

It’s been a semester of questions without answers; especially for parents, who drop their kids off at school each day with the expectation they’ll come home alive. MTN News sat down with 5 parents from different parts of Western Montana to talk about these issues.

Randy Stemple, a parent to a Big Sky sophomore. Julie Merrit, a mother of two boys in Missoula. Brett Butler, a father of two kids in the Polson school district. Elizabeth Langley, the mother of twin daughters attending Big Fork High School. Plus, Jeff Rolston – Clemmer, a parent to three students in the Missola County Public School system.

Each of these individuals come from different walks of life with different political views. However the one thing they have in common is they want their kids to be safe in school. 

Coming up tonight at 10 p.m., Kent sits down with these parents for an in-depth discussion and to delve deeper into the larger issues at hand, including gun reform, background checks and school safety.