The only schools in Montana with a gun-carrying educator are small and remote. But recent school shootings have larger and less-isolated schools looking at putting a gun in their buildings.
Elder Grove and Shepherd schools are exploring policies to implement a Montana law that allows trustees to arm anyone — a teacher, administrator, or community member.
The two districts, while still considered small and rural in a national scope, have much larger enrollments that other Montana schools that have armed staffers. And while the districts are in rural areas, they're both within 15 minutes of Billings.
“I guess the board feels it's important," said Elder Grove superintendent Justin Klebe. "I just have some teachers, I think all of us in some ways, looking at how to keep kids safe.”
School shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, placed a magnifying glass on student safety, and the idea of arming teachers — which long circulated on the fringes of mainstream education policy — received a major boost from President Donald Trump.
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Others have pushed back; the lion's share of testimony at a recent meeting of a federal school safety panel advocated for providing more mental health resources and reforming school discipline practices — and not arming teachers.
Several national organizations that represent schools, teachers and administrators have opposed arming teachers. Virtually no academic research provides evidence that arming teachers stops or prevents shootings, but a national study of mass shootings highlighted how response times from police are often too late to prevent carnage.
Montana, a state with strong general support for firearms, has a law that for years has allowed schools to choose to put a gun on campus. But very few schools have armed a staffer; a Gazette review of public records from every school district in the state last spring showed that only Lima, Belfry and Custer have an armed staffer. A handful of other schools approved a staffer to carry a weapon, but that staffer declined.
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That data could have changed in the year since the analysis was conducted, and discussions at Shepherd and Elder Grove could indicate increased interest in the topic among schools.
Last week Shepherd trustees unanimously passed the first reading of a policy that lays out framework for a staffer who wants to carry a weapon. It doesn't authorize a specific person to carry a weapon, and future approval would be public. Educators would volunteer to carry a weapon; they wouldn't be allowed to store it on school grounds.
“We’d rather be proactive than reactive,” said Shepherd superintendent Scott Carter.
Both Shepherd and Elder Grove have borrowed heavily from the method Custer schools took to arming a staffer.
For several months in 2013 and 2014, a Custer safety committee made up of law enforcement, trustees and educators examined types of weapons, bullets, training, background checks and police coordination. A pair of public meetings were held discussing the proposal, and letters were mailed out to district parents. Trustees unanimously approved a proposal requiring a psychological review, firearms training and background checks to carry in school.
Shepherd's policy also follows a Custer policy that keeps the name of armed staffers private. The Gazette maintains the information is public under the statute that allows school boards to put guns in school, but has not formally challenged the policy, nor identified armed staffers in districts that did provide the name as part of the public record.
Elder Grove has yet to introduce any sort of formal proposal, and Klebe emphasized talks are in early stages.
The district conducted a parent survey, but Klebe said only about 50 out of 300 households responded. He said trustees had specifically expressed concerns about police response times; just West of Billings, Klebe estimated it could take about 10 minutes for an officer to reach the school in an emergency.
“If we do go down that road, we’d have a committee that would come up with the procedures and expectations of everybody,” he said. “It wouldn’t be just arming teachers and anyone could carry.”
Part of the reason for interest at Elder Grove, Kelbe said, was the recent removal of a school resource officer.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder confirmed that a shared school officer was put back on regular duty in 2016. The officer had also worked with other schools surrounding Billings.
The Sheriff's Department still has two SROs, one who splits time between Shepherd and Custer and one who splits time between Lockwood and Huntley Project.
“We needed the deputy back on the streets,” Linder said. "That one made the most sense."
Carter said he's glad Shepherd has an SRO, but between duties at Custer, training and travel time, there are gaps.
“At times there’s no one available,” he said.
Carter, too, brought up response times as a concern.
Billings Public Schools, a system that dwarfs other schools in the county, had seven SROs on staff this school year. In March, the district announced plans to hire another SRO to float between elementary schools.
Billings schools pay for up-front costs like a vehicle and weapons for an officer who is supplied by the Billings Police Department, and the district pays the officer's salary and benefits. Linder said the sheriff's department isn't reimbursed for its SROs.
“All the schools want SROs," Linder said. "We just don’t have the manpower for it.”
Montana has no statewide accounting of school resource officers, but small districts typically struggle to fund such a position.
Elder Grove also doesn't have the money to pick up costs like salary, Klebe said.
“That would be an increase to the budget, anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000,” he said. “We don’t have that left over in the budget.”
Having nearby police isn't a guarantee schools won't look at arming educators. School trustees in Cody, Wyoming, operating under a new law that's more broad than Montana's, voted to allow educators with a concealed carry permit and who undergo additional training to carry guns in schools in April. The town of nearly 10,000 has its own police force, including a school resource officer who is assigned to five different schools. Among trustees' rational for arming teachers? Response times.
Craig McKinney, a middle school teacher who leads Shepherd's local union, spoke against the policy at the June 13 meeting.
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“I don’t disagree with the fact that basically we’re a rural school ... with response times out there, it would be too late,” he said in a later interview. “I understand where the board’s coming from. I just don’t think adding more firepower to schools is the answer.”
McKinney said that's his personal view as a teacher and someone who's "just not a gun person," not a union stance.
“We have teachers that are for it, we have teachers that are against it,” he said.
He had concerns about a specific provision in the policy that reads, "in the event of an active shooter, the authorized staff will actively engage the shooter."
“What if the teacher doesn’t engage," or does shoot and hits someone else, McKinney said.
He also was worried allowing one or more staffers to carry a gun would provide a false sense of security.
“There’s no guarantees. I think it just makes people maybe feel safer,” he said. “I believe that there would be people that don’t feel any safer because now you’ve added more guns into the school.”
He cited Shepherd's sprawling campus layout and multiple entry points as problematic, even with armed staffers. He said infrastructure improvements would be a better way to focus on security.
Shepherd's policy doesn't refute that point. It lists the following among "Factors and Rationale For The Armed Staff Program:"
"Our facilities themselves are not up to standards when it comes to state of the art security measures, and bringing them up to that standard can be cost prohibitive."
Montana is applying for money from a new school safety grant program that would bolster mental health training for teachers and support programs already in schools, but there's no guarantee the state gets money out of a highly competitive application process. Another round of grants from the same program could provide money for safety-related infrastructure improvements, but it's unclear if the state will apply, and competition would still be steep.
School funding for infrastructure or safety at the state level has been a tough sell. Schools can impose an automatic levy on local taxpayers to raise some money for infrastructure improvements, and a proposal that could make its way to next spring's legislature would clarify that such money can be used for safety upgrades.
But having to choose between fixing a heat pump and building an entrance vestibule to control visitor access isn't a good choice, Carter said.
"We can use all of that money just maintaining our buildings," he said. "The pot gets real small real quick."
Carter also said Shepherd works to provide mental health support to students. However, cuts in state aid to organizations that often are contracted to work in schools resulted in fewer specialized staff in schools across the state.
Retiring Billings Superintendent Terry Bouck, who has advocated for adding SROs over arming educators, emphasized the importance of such programs in a newsletter emailed to subscribers districtwide after the Santa Fe shooting that called for governments to "restore and continue mental health funding for our schools and communities."
In the same newsletter, Bouck called for increased infrastructure funding to address security needs.
One topic that history says legislators will address in next spring's session? A gun-related school bill.
In each of Montana's past four legislative sessions, there’s been a bill addressing the presence of guns in schools, ranging from opening up carry to anyone with a concealed permit to easing student penalties for having fake guns on school grounds.
In 2017, a bill from Rep. Seth Berglee, a Joliet Republican, would have allowed school employees who meet certain requirements to carry concealed weapons on school property.
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Amid that climate, Klebe hoped that legislators wouldn't loose sight of overall school funding. A budget crunch last cycle resulted in a variety of school funding cuts, including a move that forced local property taxpayers to pick up a bill for their schools worth $40 million over two years.
Elder Grove already has a low percentage of voted local levies. State law requires schools to meet a minimum budget, which includes automatic local taxes. But voted taxes can bump budgets up about 20 percent. Elder Grove did recently pass a $14.9 million bond in December for a major building project.
“It’s increasingly becoming harder for us to keep up with the area schools due to our budget constraints, then you put this on top of it,” Klebe said. “As far as trying to scratch out $40,000 to $60,000 for a resource officer, when we are already spending as conservatively as we can, it's an impossible feat.”