How Montana schools are preparing for worst-case scenarios
Shouts and squeals echoed across the playground behind Big Sky’s Ophir Elementary as some two dozen kids reveled in one of their final recesses before the big sigh of summer break. Beneath the blistering spring sun, a young girl dashed away from a half-dome lattice of climbing bars, nearly tripping in the wood chips as she sidled up to Matt Daugherty.
“How are you doing?” he asked, his sunglasses and school ID badge hanging from the front of his blue polo.
“I did a front flip,” she replied matter-of-factly.
As Daugherty continued to stroll past, two more students raced up the sidewalk, a paraeducator hot on their heels. Daugherty’s red beard drew up in a grin as he called out, “They’re keeping you running today!” He repositioned the walkie-talkie clipped at his side and continued walking up the hill behind Ophir, past a fenced-off construction area and toward his office in a windowed corner of Lone Peak High School.
Midway through the 2022-23 school year, Daugherty joined the Big Sky district full-time as its inaugural school marshal. It’s a first-of-its-kind position in Montana, made possible by the 2021 Legislature’s passage of a law sponsored by then-Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. The post is so new, in fact, that when Big Sky’s board of trustees began considering its creation last fall, Superintendent Dustin Shipman had no peers with marshals to turn to for insight. Now Daugherty and the district are learning as they go, tending to a growing list of administrative responsibilities in the name of student safety.
In an era when the threat of violence in schools manifests in a near-constant drumbeat of national headlines, education officials across Montana have increasingly turned to infrastructure upgrades and new staff positions to prepare for a variety of gut-wrenching scenarios that no longer feel improbable. Camera systems, shatterproof glass, electronic door locks and local agreements with law enforcement agencies have become more common than not over the past decade, in districts large and small alike.
In the past six months, threats delivered via phone, email and social media have put schools in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula and West Yellowstone on lockdown. As Bozeman Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram put it, “school violence doesn’t pick and choose communities.” Early in his 21-year career in public education, Bertram said, violence seemed more confined to rare events such as the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, and schools nationwide would dramatically change their safety policies in the aftermath. Today, the specter of school violence feels different to him.
“Now it feels like they’re so close together that it feels like it could happen in your backyard, it could happen in your state, and that’s a daunting feeling,” Bertram said.
The position Skees’ bill authorized — the school marshal — was designed in large part to insert a trained defender between students and anyone who might do them harm. And that’s a position Daugherty has occupied before, first as a K-9 handler in the U.S. Air Force, then in a succession of law enforcement gigs with the Lewistown Police Department and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. He spent his final eight years with the latter serving as the regional sergeant in Big Sky, during which time the sheriff’s office created a school resource officer post in the district, one currently occupied by Daugherty’s former colleague, Deputy Travis Earl.
That history has marked Daugherty with the straight back and vigilant eyes of a seasoned lawman. But he is among the first to stress that his new station is far different, and far more nuanced, than any he’s held before. He and the district are still working to determine the contours of those nuances, and articulate them to a Big Sky community filled with questions and more than a few concerns. The marshal stands as one example of the strategies schools across Montana are implementing to meet what Superintendent Shipman considers one of public education’s top priorities.
“The safety of our students is front of mind for me, be it an icy road or an active shooter,” Shipman said. “That’s one of the biggest responsibilities we as school administrators and teachers have. It’s me, it’s the principals — everybody has that responsibility on the front of their mind every day.”
Fulfilling that responsibility is now Daugherty’s primary role. Square-shouldered and fit, with the affable demeanor of a dad whose own child belongs to the student body now in his charge, he greets the district’s children daily at the schools’ front doors. His goal in doing so, he said, is to be a positive, visible presence for them — and to build the trust and rapport necessary to spot any early signs of turbulence in their lives.
“Having a [finger on the] pulse and having eye contact with kids when they’re on their way into school, with parents when they’re on their way into school, you just get a feel of where things are at,” Daugherty said.
‘WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED’
On April 5, 2023, Caroline Lurgio yanked down the blinds in her Hellgate High School classroom, locked the door and, with help from a student, barricaded it with tables. With the room dark, her third-period English class grouped in a corner, and a heavy stick and can of wasp spray at the ready, Lurgio waited, poised to attack anyone who might try to force their way in.
Minutes ticked by, maybe 20. Time got weird. Lurgio knew nothing about what might be happening beyond her makeshift barricade. She knew only what she’d read in an email minutes after class started, the email Hellgate’s principal, via the PA system, had directed staff to read: Hellgate was in full lockdown — a response, Lurgio gradually learned, to a threat involving a gun posted to social media by a student.
Outside, Missoula police officers and other local law enforcement personnel began systematically sweeping the school grounds, searching for the responsible student. Authorities also shut down a two-block stretch of Higgins Avenue just south of the commercial Hip Strip corridor, having quickly determined that the student was not on Hellgate property. As the search continued, so did the lockdown. Lurgio kept checking in with her students, gauging their emotional states and gleaning information they’d learned about the situation from their own social media accounts. After a while, she broke out some colored pencils and passed them around.
“It’s amazing what colored pencils and a blank piece of paper can do,” Lurgio told Montana Free Press. “Just the calmness of drawing is something that was really helpful.”
That same day, state representatives 100 miles away in Helena cast one of their final votes on a Senate bill requiring annual reviews of school safety plans and addressing consistency concerns related to state-mandated threat assessment teams. Senate Bill 213 passed on a bipartisan 82-18 vote.
All told, Lurgio and her class sheltered in the dark for three hours before the principal announced a plan to safely dismiss students for the day. Across Missoula, 15 other public schools had been placed under so-called soft lock-ins as well, their buildings closed to outsiders but their normal routines continuing indoors. As Lurgio finally opened the blinds, afternoon sunlight poured into the room.
“I guess we hadn’t really realized how dark it had been for so long,” Lurgio said. “As soon as [the students] left, we sort of all cried a bit, a lot of letting down. At that point, you let your guard down, you recognize what happened, what could have happened.”
The following day — the same day SB 213 cleared its final House vote — a fuller picture of the goings-on at Hellgate emerged for public consumption. According to media reports, a threat of an active shooter posted to Snapchat was brought to the attention of Hellgate’s school resource officer, prompting the lockdown and an immediate response by local police, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Montana Highway Patrol and the FBI. There’d been no such shooter, but Missoula County Public Schools spokesperson Vinny Giammona acknowledged that even without actual violence, an incident involving SWAT team sweeps and closed roads and locked doors districtwide “tugs at all of us.”
“The unique thing in that scenario is there wasn’t just a lockdown at Hellgate, but that lockdown eventually led to a lock-in of all of our other buildings in Missoula,” Giammona said. “That created another layer, because now you’re messaging essentially 17 buildings that they’re in some sort of safety lock-in, lockdown, which as you can imagine is going to be scary for the majority of our parents across the city.”
Like Bozeman Schools Superintendent Bertram, Giammona has noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere around school safety. After dedicating its attention during the COVID-19 pandemic to statewide shutdowns and hybrid attendance models, he said, MCPS has now turned its focus to crafting a consistent response to any kind of crisis. That means training staff, installing more cameras, developing crisis response teams for each building, and soliciting voter support for two school facilities levies last month to help pay for additional upgrades. Both passed.
As a result, the Missoula district is already doing much of what SB 213 will now require statewide. But the Hellgate incident was a stark reminder that there are always improvements to be made. For instance, Giammona said, the difference between Hellgate’s “lockdown” and the lock-ins at other schools — where facilities were secured, but daily activities continued indoors — was murky for some parents. MCPS is reexamining the language it uses as part of a broader refinement of its real-time communication strategy. As the nature of threats to schools evolves, so does the district’s responses.
“Social media has really changed the landscape,” Giammona said. “It’s changed access, it’s changed the ability to make a threat.”
For Billings Public Schools, that evolution led to the hiring this spring of former Billings police officer Jeremy House as the district’s new safety coordinator. Like Big Sky’s marshal, the position is a first in the state’s public education system. House will serve primarily as the administrative nerve center for safety coordination across Billings schools, reviewing emergency protocols and improving preparedness. And his installment in the post comes during a school year punctuated by a December lockdown at Billings West High School — part of a rash of simultaneous phone threats that also struck schools in Helena, Red Lodge and Forsyth.
Law enforcement quickly determined the threat was false, and the lockdown was lifted within half an hour. But according to Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham, it wasn’t the only event last fall to drive home the need for a safety coordinator. That same week, a pair of threats scrawled on bathroom walls prompted many West High parents to pull their students from school for a day. Upham said investigators “couldn’t find the source of that threat,” and classes were held on the date mentioned in the threat with a heightened police presence and what Upham described as “very, very low” student attendance. A separate threat against Billings Senior High School posted to social media that same week resulted in the arrest of one student.
“It’s like a loss of innocence,” Upham said.
When Jeremy House came on board this spring, Upham made a point to introduce him to staff at every school in Billings to talk about not just his plans for the district, but what individual educators can do to protect and care for themselves. Upham — who’s retiring this summer — sees threats of shootings and resulting lockdowns as “one more added stressor” on the school community, layered on top of evolving pandemic protocols and the heated masking debates of recent years. While Upham said he hasn’t seen those stressors dampen teachers’ enthusiasm, he does see a need to respond with strength and unity, because “we can’t just keep being the victim.”
“I just refuse to be scared all the time, and I don’t want our people being scared all the time,” Upham said. “It’s a great profession. It takes care of kids. I’m passionate about this, but this is what concerns me about retiring. I feel like I’m leaving people on the battlefield.”
In Missoula, Lurgio’s memory of lockdown remains vivid, an experience she said will undoubtedly live in the collective culture of Hellgate for years to come. She’s thankful that her 18-year tenure as a Montana teacher has included active shooter training, which she said should be mandatory. When the lockdown started, Lurgio already had her classroom stocked with drinking water, and privacy blankets and a bucket for a makeshift bathroom, and she knew precisely what to do, making a quick pivot from a discussion about Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the hushed intensity of a survival situation. Her demeanor, she said, seemed to reassure her students, a current of confidence cutting through the tense atmosphere.
Still, Lurgio said, she feels a profound sadness about the event. Sadness for colleagues who didn’t have her level of training, for seniors whose high school years were bookended by the descent into a global pandemic and the sudden shock of a lockdown, and for a struggling student who’d put their school on high alert.
“It’s silly to think that now my classroom is more than just a place for learning,” Lurgio said. “It’s now an environment that needs to have all these extra resources, and I need to be prepared and think about these things. Those are definitely lasting effects.”
‘WILL YOU HELP WHEN BEARS COME ON CAMPUS?’
As he continued his rounds on the Big Sky campus in May, Matt Daugherty paused outside Lone Peak High School to gaze past the battered pavement of Highway 191 at the wooded slopes of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Behind him, workers plugged away at a $23.5 million improvement project that includes a new athletic field (already finished) and facilities for welding and other career-based instruction (still under construction). Voters had recently rejected a $19 million bond to fund phase three of the project: a new gym capable of housing the larger sports crowds Big Sky anticipates as the growing student body bumps the high school from Class C status to Class B.
Daugherty pointed to the hills across the road to the northeast, at a patch of grass still scarred by the Porcupine Fire of November 2020. The blaze torched roughly 100 acres of lowlands just a few football field lengths from the only turnoff to the district’s campus. People heard gunshots in the hills prior to the wildfire, Daugherty said, and investigators eventually traced the source of the fire to a group of target shooters. Tests conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in 2013 revealed that fired bullet metal can be hot enough to ignite dry forest fuels, as can bullets that fragment after hitting rocks.
The proximity of the Porcupine Fire to Big Sky’s school campus speaks to a point easily obscured by the persistent shadow of national school tragedies like Sandy Hook and Uvalde: Active shooters aren’t the only threat Montana schools have to prepare for. Earthquakes, hazmat spills, propane explosions, fires on or off school property — much of the responsibility for anticipating and responding to such threats is now on Daugherty’s shoulders as he updates the district’s contingency plans for a variety of potential crises and works with local entities like the Big Sky Fire Department and Big Sky Medical Center to improve cross-agency communication. When he’s not walking the halls checking in with staff and students, or lending a hand in the lunchroom, Daugherty hunkers in his sparse office to pore over black binders stuffed with notes on how to improve the district’s approach to crisis or upgrade its facilities in the most secure, cost-effective ways possible.
It’s an administrative role never mentioned in Skees’ 2021 bill, and one that prompted some entertaining questions from Ophir Elementary students when Daugherty first toured classrooms to introduce himself.
“One that came up was, ‘Will you help when bears come on campus?’” Daugherty recalled. “Which is a realistic question for our area, right? And absolutely that’s part of it.”
Many potential risks were highlighted in a March 2022 hazard and vulnerability assessment compiled for the Big Sky school board by California-based security contractor Surefox. Natural disasters, cyber threats, utility losses and viral pandemics were all rated as high-risk threats for Ophir Elementary and Lone Peak High. So too were the risks of active assailants and weapons on school grounds, though the report noted that both threats are “rated high in all schools throughout the U.S.” Consultants added that the district’s preparedness for such events is at “a higher level than most schools,” citing the existing School Resource Office (SRO) program and the utilization of “Run-Lock-Fight” training for teachers and staff.
The Surefox assessment, paid for with a $15,000 donation from the Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, paved the way for the board’s decision last fall to hire a school marshal. According to Shipman, it will also serve as “the anchor” for Daugherty’s work.
“His job is much bigger in scope than just standing here and making sure nobody comes into the school unencumbered,” Shipman told MTFP. “His job is now all emergency preparedness.”
While Daugherty started the job last fall, board trustees didn’t fully nail down his job description until early this year. One specific detail generated mixed feelings in the Big Sky community: Should he carry a gun? The 2021 law focused heavily on that question, listing a concealed carry permit as the first of three eligibility requirements for school marshals (the other two being state certification as a peace officer and current or past experience in law enforcement). The law also exempted marshals from Montana’s prohibition on firearms in public school buildings, the only other exemptions being for active law enforcement or people with prior clearance from the school board.
In a letter to the board, Big Sky parent Jolene Romney expressed opposition to the proposal that Daugherty be armed while on duty, believing it would send the message to students that “we need to deal with the proliferation of guns by having more guns.” Four other community members articulated similar concerns to MTFP, echoing Romney’s hope that Daugherty’s job would focus on “deliverables” related to the myriad risks outlined in Surefox’s report.
The same central debate — whether a “good guy with a gun” is an appropriate or effective school safety measure — has dogged parents, educators and communities across the nation. Last year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law allowing public school teachers to carry firearms. Florida charted a similar course in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting. And lawmakers in Texas advanced a proposal this spring mandating armed security personnel in every school in the state, which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in June.
In each case, the decision to arm school employees sparked backlash from an array of stakeholders. But public opinion underscored the power of personal experience in shaping those reactions. Law enforcement groups in Ohio opposed the state’s new law based on the low training threshold — a reduction from 700 hours to just 24 — required for educators to carry firearms. Meanwhile, the New York Times profiled an Ohio kindergarten teacher who embraced the opportunity to carry a gun at school to counteract a feeling of helplessness, even as state education associations balked at the proposal. A 2022 poll of 1,008 Americans found that while only 45% favored arming teachers, 80% supported armed police in schools. Who carries a gun, and how much training they have, are key details in a strategy that’s still evolving.
Montana’s school marshal law garnered the support in 2021 of education groups including the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, based in large part on work the organizations had done to guarantee that those marshals meet state peace officer qualifications. Supporters framed the role as an extension of the longstanding School Resource Officer approach, now deeply ingrained in larger Montana school districts, but still out of reach of smaller communities lacking municipal police departments and geographically isolated from sheriffs’ headquarters. In Missoula, Lurgio said, she’s seen SROs at Hellgate over the years dedicate themselves to building positive relationships with students, to being “an ally for them.” The fact that the school’s SRO is armed “doesn’t bother me,” she continued, though she said she’d feel differently if the gun were concealed.
“I feel safer knowing that there is one SRO with a weapon on campus than I would knowing — or not knowing — that there are multiple weapons on campus,” Lurgio said.
Under Montana’s school marshal law, marshals are allowed to act “only as necessary” to prevent actions that threaten “serious bodily injury or death of persons on public school property.” The law directs school boards to adopt policies governing how a marshal can carry and store a firearm, and specifying the type of gun and ammunition used. As with other potentially sensitive policies, school officials can elect to keep such details confidential if disclosing them might jeopardize the safety of staff and students. Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton explained that that authority is part of a decade-old rewrite of state provisions governing the withholding of public information that, if released, could allow threats to sidestep elements of a school’s safety response and inflict even greater harm.
“The goal [of confidentiality] was to ensure that the intent of a safety plan, which is to protect kids, would be accomplished and wouldn’t be undermined by someone intent on inflicting school violence,” Melton said, adding that detailed knowledge of Columbine High School protocols was partly what allowed the two perpetrators of the 1999 shooting to map out a meticulous plan.
Shipman acknowledged that putting guns in schools, even in the hands of a trained professional, is a “sensitive” subject. But he and Daugherty are quick to point out that armed personnel have already been a presence in Big Sky schools through the SRO program. Daugherty asserted that the majority of staff and parents he’s talked to, in his daily routine and in a series of community meet-and-greets this year, felt “much more at ease” knowing that he’s armed. It’s not just his experience, he said. It’s that he’s made being “approachable” one of his top priorities.
“The position really hinges on having the right person in it,” Daugherty said. “Whatever school ends up taking on a school marshal role, it’s extremely important to have that right personality in there for the kids and the staff and the families.”
Whether or not a marshal is armed isn’t the only detail that’s generated questions. Romney said she also wonders about the long-term sustainability of the position. Daugherty’s salary comes not from the district’s budget, but rather from a private donation through the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation — a fact Shipman confirmed, adding that the source of the funding, which is good for five years, was one of two key factors — the other being Daugherty’s professional qualifications — that convinced Big Sky to create the position in the first place. If the district is going to get the most out of that money, Romney said, Daugherty’s work on school safety should involve parents and community partners.
“This is a really big job, and could potentially use the help of a parent committee or a community committee — to do research, to bounce ideas off of, to provide perspective,” Romney said. “I feel like that would help give the community more of a voice in this process.”
According to Romney and school officials, that’s exactly what’s happening. In the months since Romney raised her concerns to the board, the district has convened roughly 18 volunteers to help advise and assist Daugherty in bolstering safety at Ophir Elementary and Lone Peak High. Members of that committee include school staff, representatives from local emergency service agencies, and interested parents — Romney among them. She said the committee, which has met twice to date, has discussed a wide range of potential improvements, including a shatterproof film for school windows and emergency medical training for staff. Romney added that she’s offered to help identify outside funding sources for such measures.
Daugherty agrees the group will be a valuable resource on a variety of projects, starting with updates to the district’s emergency response plan. He said he sees himself being “point on all of that,” fulfilling a supervisory role, he added, that doesn’t fall under the purview of an SRO or other existing positions in the schools.
‘THE WORST DAY THAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IN MY LIFE’
Last October, a high-speed car chase involving a half-dozen law enforcement agencies came to a crashing halt in a ditch less than half a mile from Simms High School. The incident started more than 30 miles east in Great Falls and swept southwest along Interstate 15 through Cascade and Wolf Creek before doubling back toward Great Falls along Montana Highway 200. According to the Great Falls Tribune, the suspect carjacked a separate vehicle halfway through the chase, drove southbound on the interstate’s northbound lane for a time, and allegedly attempted to run over a Cascade County Sheriff’s deputy.
It’s not the first time in his 13 years with the district that Sun River Valley Superintendent David Marzolf has been reminded of the seemingly random — and potentially dangerous — situations that can develop within a stone’s throw of a school’s front doors.
“There was a time, four or five years ago, the principal and I had to go out to the parking lot. Some guy was outrunning law enforcement from Helena, took the cut-across road, and ended up in our parking lot,” Marzolf recalled in a conversation with MTFP. “We have to deal with that stuff all the time. Well, not all the time.”
Student safety is a consistent topic of conversation among leaders in the small outlying district, and Marzolf has tried to beef up security by putting teachers through active shooter drills focused on defensive strategies and purchasing cameras for the elementary, middle and high schools that can alert administrative staff to emerging threats. Every classroom is equipped with a can of Reflex Protect, a Mace-like spray with a pistol-style nozzle and trigger. Marzolf heard about the product from Helena School Superintendent Rex Weltz back when Weltz was leading the district in Polson.
Public reaction to one of Marzolf’s most recent investments generated a mixed bag of critique. As word spread that Sun River Valley had supplemented its video cameras with facial recognition software, people reacted with interest and concern alike. The latter, Marzolf said, came mostly from state lawmakers who claimed he was “infringing on students’ rights” by compiling and storing student information. “We don’t,” Marzolf clarified, noting that the software’s data cloud stores images for only 30 days and that he alone has access to the camera systems.
Marzolf argued the software is able to alert him when a person in local law enforcement’s database shows up on a school camera. Marzolf can also upload images of people the district has barred from school grounds due to criminal activity brought to their attention by parents or law enforcement.
“Let’s say you have a warrant for your arrest and you’re not supposed to pick up your student at our building,” Marzolf told MTFP. “We could potentially get a picture of you and put it in our camera system. And when you come up to the door, it’ll alert us that you are on premises.”
The technology didn’t come cheap — roughly $30,000, Marzolf estimates, not counting the cameras. Back in 2019, then-Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law establishing a new type of tax levy specifically to fund school safety investments. Districts can now put the question directly to voters, and the law gives local education officials wide latitude in how they can spend those dollars. The Bozeman school district got voter approval last month for two such levies, one for its elementary schools and one for high schools. Executive Director of Business and Operations Mike Waterman told MTFP the funding will support the district’s school resource officer program and salaries for school counselors, and added that he’s fairly certain Bozeman is the first district in the state to pass such a levy.
But for smaller districts in particular, the cost of even assessing security strengths and weaknesses can prove restrictive. Such assessments also happen to be one of the myriad services the University of Montana’s Safe Schools Center provides free of charge, in part courtesy of a $2 million, three-year federal grant. Center Director Emily Sallee said those assessments examine every detail of the school environment, from building layouts and traffic flows to cybersecurity considerations like how students access and use the internet. Sallee’s team then translates its findings into a report that presents a prioritized list of safety needs, some of which can be prohibitively expensive.
“Sometimes schools really need, like, architectural changes to increase school safety, and that funding probably isn’t there and it’s not going to happen,” Sallee said. “But there’s always pieces you can do at less cost or less investment that have a pretty high return.”
Assessments provide “a baseline” for district officials, she continued, and can identify such low-cost, often overlooked improvements as keeping exterior doors locked and checking staff ID badges at school entrances. But, she added, bigger-ticket school safety items may have to compete with pressing infrastructure issues like a leaky roof. And Montana’s focus on expanding career-based instruction and its dismal national ranking on teacher pay mean safety isn’t the only long-term investment demanding dollars in school budgets that already have little, if any, room to maneuver. With the passage of SB 213, Sallee is reaching out to school leaders to build awareness that the center offers a breadth of safety-centric services at no cost in the hopes of saving districts money.
Shawn Bubb agrees that the new law is likely to create quite a bit of work for safety consultants in the coming year, with districts now required to revisit their response plans annually and certify those reviews with the Office of Public Instruction. As director of the Montana School Boards Association’s insurance services arm, he’ll be part of that process. Bubb’s organization oversees property and liability coverage for 180 of Montana’s 826 public schools, coverage that includes discounted safety assessments provided by the Michigan-based firm Secure Education Consultants. That work, Bubb said, is aimed primarily at preventative measures — improved door locks, stricter protocols for how people enter a school — “before you even talk about arming somebody.”
He acknowledges that the potential for a school shooting in Montana is “pretty scary.” Personally, he said, “I’m just terrified of it.” When he rattles off a list of the speciality funds included in the insurance he oversees, it’s easy to see why: property damage, medical expenses, counseling services, post-incident security measures, funeral costs.
“That’s the worst day that’s going to happen in my life is when I get the call when one of our members is directly impacted by one of these bad events,” Bubb said. “I’m going to be glad that we’re going to have the resources there to help them, but it’s not a day I’m looking forward to.”
According to a database compiled by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, Montana has experienced nine incidents of gun-based school violence since 1970, including the fatal shooting in 1986 of a substitute teacher at Lewistown’s Fergus High School — the only Montana fatality listed in the center’s data. State-specific statistics from the national nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety show that guns are the second-leading cause of death among Montana children and teens; on average, 83% of those deaths are suicides, while fewer than 20% are homicides.
‘A TOUCHY, TOUCHY SUBJECT’
After checking in at his office, Matt Daugherty strolled up and down the halls of Lone Peak High, past students studying sprawled on tables or floors and classrooms bathed in the soft glow of projectors. He peeked inside the vacant gymnasium, crowing about how the boys basketball team — the Big Horns — cruised past district for the first time ever this season and into the Class C state tournament (they lost in the second round). Outside the school library, which pulls double duty as Big Sky’s public community library, Daugherty paused.
“Mind if I duck in there for a minute?” he asked. “My daughter’s studying and I haven’t said hey to her today.”
With every student and teacher he passed, Daugherty posed the same question first: “How’re you doing?” Usually he referred to them by their first name, an ability he said he’s dedicated a lot of time to developing this spring. While filling in for the secretary at the high school’s front desk, Daugherty encouraged a student signing out for the day — already a football player — to go out for the basketball team. The student shrugged and said he’d be “rusty.”
“Even if you’re rusty, you’ve got the athleticism,” Daugherty said.
That accessibility and engagement is partly a strategy. Daugherty said he recognizes that his best tactic for heading off potential threats is to build relationships with students, teachers and parents and be alert for any signs that a kid might be having a tough time. The approach stems from the widely researched and debated belief that school violence can often stem from students struggling with their mental or behavioral health and feeling isolated, lost, or adrift.
Sallee, who also serves as an assistant professor in UM’s Department of Counseling, said that in the case of school shootings, the perpetrator is often a student who’s been expelled. A Washington Post analysis of 380 school shootings since Columbine showed that the median age of school shooters is 16. And numerous studies conducted in the U.S. and abroad have explored correlations between exclusionary punishments and antisocial or violent behavior by and among students. Education systems throughout the country have responded to such findings by adjusting their disciplinary policies and further emphasizing the importance of school counselors and psychologists, particularly in the wake of a pandemic that isolated students from their social and academic worlds for a prolonged period of time. Just three months into the pandemic, a 2020 Gallup poll showed that 45% of parents said their childrens’ mental and emotional health was already suffering due to separation from teachers and classmates. In the years since, test scores tumbled nationally, classroom disruptions spiked, and more than 80% of U.S. schools reported negative impacts on social-emotional development.
Sallee said growing recognition of the interplay between emotional well-being and violence has also changed the landscape of threat assessment to be “much more supportive, much more holistic” than in past decades.
And part of creating a safe environment, she said, is helping to ensure that educators monitor their own mental well-being so they don’t become “hypervigilant” and “burnt-out” at school, which is why her team at the Safe Schools Center offers workshops for educators focused specifically on resiliency and healing.
“We can do youth mental health first aid, we can do adult mental health first aid,” Sallee said of the center’s work. “It’s all wrapped into the same ball of safety, whether it’s actual or perceived.”
School officials see mental health supports as promising, both in averting incidents and in responding to them. In Billings, Superintendent Upham said the district is working with its new safety coordinator, Jeremy House, to develop a “debrief team” capable of addressing the aftershocks of an event among students and staff. Even if there turns out to be no shooter, Upham said, a lockdown can put “added stress” on a school population — stress that can migrate to other schools in the district and sap the very thing that makes education possible.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t have the energy yourself to motivate [students], it makes it extremely difficult to teach,” Upham said. “What worries me is that the level of fear and trepidation and anxiety that we are feeling, it robs people of energy and they can’t stay at a level of motivation that makes them as effective as they can be.”
Vinny Giammona said Missoula County Public Schools is planning to incorporate similar staff debrief practices in the development of a district-wide crisis response team next school year. That approach could also include post-incident surveys of teachers and staff, he said, as well as guaranteeing that the district addresses any ongoing needs in the months following an event.
Recent experience in his district has led Upham to speculate about the harm that even lockdowns can inflict. When his assistant superintendent entered his office last December to inform him of the incident unfolding at Billings West High School, he recalls, she was “visibly shaking.” The district is now actively discussing what role lockdowns might play moving forward and evaluating what it might do differently in response to reported threats. Until recently, Upham said, Billings simply hadn’t taken the time to have conversations about school safety measures, and his prime motivation at every turn has been to get the topic “out in the open,” to find a balance between what the district can do to ensure the safety of its students and what parents will accept.
“It’s a touchy, touchy subject,” he said.
In Big Sky, Shipman believes the district is already well positioned to meet the mental and behavioral health needs of its students. According to him, Big Sky’s schools have twice the number of counselors required by state regulations governing school quality, which mandate a ratio of at least one counselor for every 400 students. (Shipman’s district has two full-time counselor positions.) Elementary school students also receive a weekly counseling session as part of their class schedule, just like art or music.
“We’re [as] on top of it as we can be,” Shipman said, noting that not all school shootings in American communities have been perpetrated by students, or even by people suffering from mental health issues. “It is hard to be 100% in tune with all students all the time. That’s just not possible.”
Daugherty agreed with Shipman’s assessment that mental and behavioral health resources are “very well handled” in the district. He said he maintains an open line of communication with both of the district’s school counselors, one of whom — the wife of a former colleague at the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office — he’s known for 20 years. Daugherty may not be trained to offer such services himself, but he sees his position as more than a shield against potential violence. Like counselors, active shooter drills, emergency response plans and safety coordinators, he considers himself part of an extensive patchwork designed to protect against threats that may or may not involve a gun.
“The school ends up being the hub of our community, and there’s a lot of other things that are happening outside of school at night and on the weekends that can end up filtering back in,” Daugherty said. “It’s a matter of trying to be ahead of those things and being aware of things so you don’t get surprised.”
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