During an active shooter training scenario, someone role playing a student stood up and “shot” former Saco school superintendent Gordon Hahn. He never had a chance, weapon or not.
Hahn carried a gun for about five years at Saco, one of the few schools in gun-loving Montana to have an armed staffer despite a state law allowing it.
“My perception of my weapon changed. I really didn’t feel like that was the key anymore,” he said.
Hahn has traveled to about a dozen school districts for training sessions about how to respond to an active shooter in school.
After the 1999 Columbine school shooting, police departments around the country, including Billings, changed how they respond to active shooters. They no longer wait for specialized personnel like SWAT teams. The first BPD officer on the scene makes a judgement call about whether to enter a building or wait for a second officer; but once multiple officers are on the scene, they go in.
Police also offer training to local businesses and schools, focusing on three words — run, hide, fight.
“The first thing to do is get out,” said Billings police spokesman Lt. Neil Lawrence. “Sometimes that’s not able to happen. Then we tell them to lock the door, hide, try to protect yourself the best you can. Once you lock yourself into a room or a closet because you can’t escape the building, you prepare to fight.”
The department doesn’t have a stance on guns in schools, leaving that up to districts, Lawrence said. Billings is large enough that the school district has six school resource officers between middle and high schools. But most schools in Montana don’t have a resource officer; statistics aren’t easily available on resource officers around the state.
Thompson Falls, with fewer than 500 students enrolled, might be the smallest school district in the state with a full-time cop. After Sandy Hook, the school district, city and a private donor came together to pay the salary of a school resource officer who works in school during the school year and for the city during the summer.
“You have a uniformed person who was trained. There’s an expectation there,” said superintendent Jason Slater, who doesn’t like the idea of arming school employees. He specifically liked the potential of a cop to act as a deterrent to violence.
“How many times have you driven into a town with an empty cop car and hit the brakes?” he said.
But without the partner funding, could Thompson Falls pull that off?
“It’d be very difficult for a school our size,” Slater said. “You’d have to look at the impact on other positions, and it becomes a judgement call. … That’d have to be a priority set by the board.”
Billings schools focused on implementing a buzz-in system to admit visitors to schools, keeping all exterior doors locked, early in superintendent Terry Bouck’s tenure. It’s widely considered a best practice for schools, though it’s imperfect; in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman blasted through locked doors before killing 26 children and staff members.
And some measures, like metal detectors, have been shown to have a negative effect on academic performance and worsen students' perception of school.
Several administrators in small districts told The Gazette in responses to a statewide public records request on guns in schools that a lack of state support for school infrastructure makes it difficult to implement safety systems with competing budget priorities.
Mental health support is often framed in terms of preventing student self-harm, but it also plays a role in preventing violent actions by students against others.
“Mental health is a serious issue, and it’s something that traditionally educators didn’t get a lot of training in,” said Slater, who said Columbia Falls has focused on adding supports.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, "only a fraction of students in need actually receive mental health services, and among those who do, the majority access those services in school."
The group argues that "schools cannot be barricaded against all possible harm," and that physical barriers should be implemented alongside targeted clinical supports and general efforts to improve school climate.
School District 2 in Billings partners with other agencies to provide specialized counselors, and plans to roll out a new mental health screening initiative next year. But like SRO’s, those resources are more scant in rural areas.
School violence is rare in those areas, but not unheard of.
“We’re fortunate,” Slater said. “At the same time, you’d be foolish to think an emergency can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere.”