MISSOULA – When it comes to school violence, there are more questions than answers.
Should teachers carry guns in the classroom? Are America’s gun laws too lax? How are schools preparing for the possibility of a mass shooting incident? And what about parents — how can they navigate a semester full of gun debates, walkouts and school threats?
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. Statistics show that 46% of those threats involved actual guns while 45% of the 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.
So, what are schools doing in the case of an act of violence?
Kristin Wilson, the principal at Linderman Elementary School in Polson, 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.”
Hardening schools has been at the forefront of the school safety discussion and in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, President Trump said one solution to school shootings is arming teachers.
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 — something that Polson Schools 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. “
Reporter Kent Luetzen went On Special Assignment and sat down with five parents from Western Montana who have five different points of view about the issue of threats and violence in schools.
One of the questions posed was whether the parents have discussed the issues at home.
“They share their concerns and fears. Just making sure that when they are in the classroom if something were to happen that they would be safe, what was their route. These are things that are in their mind, unfortunately, so we just have open dialogue!” said Elizabeth Langley a mother of twin daughters.
Another topic discussed with the group was how times have changed since the parents were in school.
“It’s ridiculous how much it’s changed. We had fire drills and occasional weather event that would concern people, but the whole idea of kids bringing weapons to school — I mean the campus was completely open when I was in high school,” said Jeff Rolston-Clemmer, a father of three. “There was zero concern. It’s a world of difference.”
The parents were also asked to weigh in on what they think about what’s causing the rise in school threats — and shootings.
“One of the things that I find is interesting out of this conversation is the thought that we need to push that age limit up to 21,” said Rand Stemple whose child is a sophomore at Big Sky High School.
“These are adults. These are kids that at 17 can sign up for the military and they are voting away a right they have in the Constitution. We are taking the responsibility for anything at a young age and now we are just pushing them back to becoming adults to a later age,” he added.
“There is a whole slew of emotion that these poor kids are unfortunately just trying to deal with and sometimes they don’t have those avenues at home,” said Brett Butler who has two kids.
“[They] look for it at the schools or in some sort of parental figure, and if that opportunity isn’t taking, sometimes these things start down the wrong path and eventually commit some kind of harm it’s their only avenue for release,” he added.
“The idea that [is] it needs to start at the home — and I totally agree. Probably all of us sitting here have the skills to teach our kids those things,” said Julie Merritt a mother of two.
“What I’ve seen though as a volunteer in the school a lot is that there a whole lot of parents out there that don’t have those skills. You can’t teach what you don’t know,” Merritt continued. “There is definitely a segment of the population who has the ability to have that start at home but we need to go beyond that and that can be the only answer.”
“I appreciate the sentiment that we all need to do more at home or that there is a lot of things we can do other than gun control,” said Rolston-Clemmer.
“But my questions would be is why is America so different from other countries that do have more gun control, gun regulations — where there is not as many guns we don’t see as much gun violence,” he continued.
“Focusing on gun control or the gun is I think wrong,” Stemple said. “One of the other things I have a problem with is to say the kids want to vote this right of the gun — not all of them do.”
“This is a right, so just because 50% or 70% do, do you get to trample the other 30% of the people rights? We don’t live in a democracy, we live in a Republic. We have rights that are stated in the Constitution,” Stemple added.
“Maybe 50% of the students are willing to say I don’t need a gun [until] I’m 21, but that is the country that we live in. I may not have voted for the president or the governor, but a majority of the people did…so that’s not exactly accurate,” said Elizabeth Langley a mother of two.
“So there may be 50 to 70% that are saying [they] aren’t ready for the gun [and say they’ll] wait to I’m 21. The other 30% will have to live with the choice the other students have made,” Langley added.
The conversation spanned 90 minutes.
Reporting by Kent Luetzen for MTN News