School safety concerns dominated School District 2’s board meeting Monday night almost two weeks after a Florida school shooting.
Superintendent Terry Bouck addressed security issues, while several people used public comment to speak about a planned student walkout.
A group of students from all three Billings high schools are planning a 17-minute walkout March 14, both as a memorial to the 17 people killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and as a demand for legislative action addressing gun violence in schools.
“Gun violence in schools has reached a tipping point,” said Senior High junior Clara Bentler, one of the students organizing the walkout and a separate march slated for March 24. “We hope that the school board and school district administrators will support our efforts, and we will respectfully return to class after 17 minutes.”
Bouck said the district is still planning how best to work with students.
“Our students have the right under the constitution to express their opinion,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can on safety.”
He said district officials planned to meet with student leaders Tuesday.
There are no concrete plans so far regarding potential punishment for students leaving school, he said. One idea officials are exploring is taking attendance before and after a planned walkout to account for students who don’t return to class.
“When you have 1,700 kids, we need to be organized,” he said.
He said school officials would emphasize the importance of keeping students on school grounds — and keeping anyone not affiliated with the school off school grounds.
Billings resident Tim Teachout said that he supported students’ expression, but not their forum.
“I do not think that it should be done on school hours,” he said.
Tracy Heilman said she has a daughter at Senior High.
“It’s terrifying to me, knowing that my child is at a school and if her school is going to be the next one,” she said.
Senior High science teacher Sarah Lord, wearing a shirt from Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, said that she supported the walkout.
She also addressed proposals that President Donald Trump has repeatedly supported to arm school staffers.
“I’m also asking that you please, please ... not consider arming staff.”
Montana school boards can approve someone to carry a weapon in schools, but only a handful in small rural communities have.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state teacher's union, urged school staff not to lead students on political issues.
“I am impressed (with students), and I’m hoping that we can all stay out of the way,” he said last week. “It is not our job to provoke them to do that. I know that there are teachers who take all of this very close to heart. We just want them to careful and circumspect in how they go about expressing that.”
Bouck recapped existing safety measures that Billings has implement since he arrived in 2012.
He cited a system that maintains locked doors through a buzz-in or ID swipe system, an increase in school resource officers and the purchase of an emergency communication system.
Administrators have received active shooter training in the past. The district added a second day of training for a previously planned active shooter training in April.
“We got response from our staff saying, ‘We all want to be involved,’” Bouck said.
He also said he would support adding school resource officers, but the school would need additional funding to pay for equipment costs and salary.
“It’s something that I think we need to look at,” he said.
Bouck also emphasized the district isn’t taking a political stance on gun issues.
Some trustees did express concern about school violence.
“It’s obscene that we’re spending educational resources to train educators for a day in active shooters,” said Trustee Mike Leo. “It’s something that we should do for the safety of students, for sure, but I don’t think we should ever treat it as normal.”
Trustee Tanya Ludwig said that a relative of hers worked as a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado when a school shooting occurred there in 1996.
“She was hiding under her desk,” Ludwig said. “Students have to stand up and say, ‘We’re done.’”