New Protocols, Changes Coming
March 8, 2018
On February 14th, 2018, Parkland Florida found itself at the center of national attention when Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School saw one of the deadliest school shootings in modern history. Former student of the school Nikolas Cruz, 19, fired several rounds from a semi-automatic AR 15, killing 17 students and injuring 14 others.
The national response was overwhelming; protests and student walkouts demanding gun control and advocacy for student safety were held in cities across the country.
Missoula high school students participated in the walkouts and protests. Hellgate students marched to the Higgins Avenue bridge with signs that read “Enough is Enough” or “Protect kids not guns.” Big Sky and Sentinel students staged their own walkouts as well. Students from all three schools gathered at Caras Park for the ultimate protest.
The protests came in the wake of the rapid spreading of threats made against student safety across the nation. Even in Montana, there have been numerous threats made in a number of cities around the state, including Belgrade, Billings, Darby, Dillon, Hamilton, and Phillipsburg. Missoula schools have also been subjected to the chaos.
Big Sky High School in particular has accumulated much media attention due to the string of seemingly unrelated threats made against the school.
A low-risk threat on Wednesday, February 28, prompted an email home to families. Earlier, on February 21, following a low risk verbal threat from Thursday of the previous week, students went to administration after the discovery of a written threat in one of the boys’ bathrooms, warning students not to come to school on February 23. The following day, Big Sky was put on soft lockdown at approximately 11:45 in response to another threat found grafittied in the girl’s bathroom in the F building of the school, reading “Don’t be at Big Sky at 1:20.”
Officials locked exterior doors to the building while staff, administrators, and law enforcement stationed at the main entrance monitored the comings and goings of all people. Students and staff were still permitted to move inside the building as the threat was deemed low risk.
According to an email sent out to parents and staff by Principal Natalie Jaeger on Feb 28, threats are assessed by a crisis team made up of counselors, administration, and the SRO.
All the recent threats against Big Sky were deemed low risk, which in reference to the email, is vague, indirect, and implausible.
Low risk threats are unrealistic, with the context of the threats suggesting the perpetrator does not have access to sufficient resources. It’s important to know that in low risk threats, suspects do not have a history of conflict or related behaviors or unmanaged mental health issues.
Though the risk for danger is low with these threats, assessing them is a thorough process and can take days to fully investigate.
“The threat assessment we did yesterday took most of the day. It takes an entire day to assess a low level threat,” says Jaeger. “We’ve had students who have been medium level threats. That takes probably up to three days to assess, and the student will probably not be back in the building for a while.”
In the past, the threat assessment results were often not shared with the school community with the hope to avoid panic. However, in light of recent events, Jaeger says, that information will now be always communicated.
“Everybody wants more information. Students, parents, staff – they want to be informed. They want to know what’s happening. They want to know the process and they want to know the outcome,” Jaeger says. “That is a big change to the way we threat assess.”
“People feel more confident and comfortable when they have all the information. I get that. But it’s a change. I wouldn’t have known until last week.”
Jaeger, Assistant Principal Jennifer Courtney, and School Resource Officer Jeff Lloyd held forums in the school cafetorium during second and third periods on February 23. Students were allowed the opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings about the threats made against the school, and what’s planned moving forward.
Last week saw the implementation of new safety protocols at Big Sky: all non-staff members are now required to enter the building from the main entrance only. In addition, grade level assemblies featured information regarding “run-lock-fight” procedures, which were also covered by teachers in every class.
Some students were upset by the fact that the school has had no lockdown drills to prepare them. In response, Jaeger says, “One reason we haven’t done lockdown drills is that they aren’t best practice anymore. If you can run out that door, we want you to run out that door.”
However, on March 2, the school had an in-class lockdown drill.
Many students are happy with finally getting the experience.
“I think that it’s important that Big Sky has been cracking down in safety, and I think that it is good they are stepping up in safety procedures,” says senior Jean Paul Jones.
Administration also plans to have an evacuation drill this week, which will be the first since the past fall of this school year.
And, according to Jaeger, she hopes to have more evacuation and lockdown drills during the passing periods.
“I think that’s what worries people – like ‘what do we do if we’re not in this controlled environment of a classroom?’” says Jaeger. “I don’t want anybody to be scared or surprised by going into a drill, so I will definitely give teacher and students and parents a ‘heads up’.”
And while these drills are known to help, administration implores the community to realize that “run-lock-fight” scenarios are very situational. Assistant Principal Matt Clausen says people to need to decide what the safest thing for them to do is in these events.
During one of the student forums, Assistant Principal Jennifer Courtney mentioned that these safety procedures were developed by professionals, but they’re not always guaranteed to keep students secure, and it may be up to the individual to take their safety into their own hands.
Teacher Amy Miller also noted that it’s impossible to ensure safety 100% of the time, and that we’ll have to live with some uncertainty. “You can’t prevent everything that could happen from happening no matter what you do.”
Other Big Sky community members believe however, that the school’s focus for student safety is in the wrong place.
“It’s sad to me that a student would have to fear going to their own school more than, say, walking around downtown Missoula at night. That’s absurd,” says teacher Jay Bostrom. “School is a place that obviously should be safe. To think that being safe is by closing and locking you guys in and making these bunkers is really pretty pathetic when we need to be talking about how we get the guns out people’s hands.”
Policies for student parking will also be changing. There will be no parking in the F lot of the building — students will have to park in the student lot and use the main entrance. Opening the 20’s doors to let others in will not be permitted.
“There might be some things that feel really inconvenient in the future,” says Courtney.
A proposal for decals on student cars to better monitor suspicious activity accurately was made and is expected that it will happen.
On March 1, Big Sky hosted a community forum to further discuss school safety.
The school bond project, which focuses heavily on the auditorium and school safety, will be starting sooner than originally anticipated.
According to Jaeger, her request to the superintendent about moving up the date of the main entry renovation was approved. The project was slated to begin this fall, but will now start this spring.
“It takes a while, but the process will be starting next month, in April, rather than in September,” says Jaeger.
New locks and emergency exit alarms have been requested by the school to the district. The school also plans on getting a new PA system.
Jaeger stressed that she hopes to balance security concerns with student morale by not overwhelming the school with new rules. “The more we clamp down on kids, the more it stresses them. That’s my personal opinion,” says Jaeger. “We don’t react very well as humans when we’re that tightly controlled; I think there’s a happy medium.”
It’s a lot of changes for Big Sky, but Jaeger thinks it’s going well so far.
“The students have been super compliant,” says Jaeger. “I had enough conversations – really thoughtful, honest conversations with all members of our community that when we had another low level threat, I communicated it and what I got back was, ‘Thank you very much.’”
“It’s a learning process for all of us. I’ve said this before, but I think that we will come out of it in a better position as a school.”
Administration continues to encourage students and staff to report anything they find suspicious by contacting the attendance office or emailing administrators. They appreciate all efforts to keep the school a safe place.
Reporters Maddie Crandall, Andrew Gardanier, Savannah Hauglum, Kylee McCloney, Aaron Toney, and CIashe Vang also contriubuted to this report.