MISSOULA - The swings will soon be occupied by students ready to start a new year.
Most people don’t know just how much goes on behind the scenes to keep them safe on campus; it’s a conversation that is constant.
“Every year at the end of the year we get together and talk about things we saw throughout the year. Any concerns we had and things that we can do different,” said Jeanette Rankin Elementary School Principal Christina Stevens. “So, I would say that is the number one thing. We know the worries, talk about them, and put plans in place.”
Administrators at Jeanette Rankin Elementary School in Missoula — which performs eight drills a year, ranging from fire drills to lockdown drills — are always mindful of the age of the student body.
“The younger ages, they get anxiety about these drills. So, we spoon feed them at the beginning and tell them what’s going to happen,” Stevens explained. “ talk a lot about what’s going on behind the scenes for the kids, where I'm at during a fire drill or lockdown. Why we wiggle the doors. We talk a lot about that behind the scenes.”
Locked doors and other systems activate when there’s a threat but also control who can enter the school building. Communication systems are also paramount, especially when there are annual staff changes.
We know in most emergencies; communication tends to be the most important thing. So, we want to make sure that schools...we want to make schools understand who is part of our crisis teams in our buildings, where the phone trees are, and how that communication goes throughout the district. It's something our crisis team talks about each September and October -- that first semester of the school year -- to make sure everyone is on the same page. - Missoula County Public Schools Director of Operations and Maintenance Burley McWilliams
There are other technologies available to help communication — including new apps — that MCPS is exploring.
A threat to a school can include wildlife, a fire, an angry parent, or a law enforcement situation nearby. But it's the highly publicized school shootings that are often top of mind — the worst-case scenario. Talking about that with younger students takes a little finesse; they should be safe but not scared.
“Usually with younger kids I don’t really refer to shooters just because of the age of the kids in the building it’s more about danger, a dangerous person in the building, someone who is looking for a kid or take a student,” Stevens told MTN News. “I give them more of those examples that we keep you safe and no one can come in and just take you.”
Checking doors are tightly shut and functional, double checking all emergency lights are working and students know visually the difference between a fire drill and a lockdown. It’s a constant process.
“I can tell you, I've done this for 30 years, it’s a nerve, I know some kids and parents worry,” Stevens said. “They’re hard to practice but we do it and each time we learn something different.”
“I would argue with anyone that schools are still the safest place for your kids to be during the day, you’ll never tell me different,” McWilliams concluded.
Watch the full MTN News back-to-school special below.