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Billings police officers gather at the northeast corner

Billings police officers armed with shotguns and patrol rifles gather at the northeast corner of Senior High School as they prepare to search the building in 2012 after reports of a person with an automatic weapon inside the school.

Semiautomatic rifles could be coming to schools in the Florida county where 17 students were killed in a school shooting. And, in rare instances, they could be in Billings schools already.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, which responded to the Feb. 14 shooting, announced that it would begin issuing rifles to school-based deputies with the appropriate training. The Miami Herald reported that the guns were likely to be similar to the AR-15 — the rifle used by the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School on Feb. 14.

Billings has seven school resources officers, or SROs, assigned to high schools and middle schools who could use patrol rifles — semiautomatic weapons similar to an AR-15 — in schools. But it’s not a regular practice.

“They do more than provide security,” said police chief Rich St. John in an email. “To have them patrol the halls with a rifle would turn them into sentries. So, bottom line is that we have the equipment and ability, but discussion (is) required. … It would be a policy decision by (School District 2) and a change in job description for the SRO.”

Billings SROs are patrolmen who are at least trained and qualified with standard-issue equipment like a handgun, shotgun and less lethal implements.

“Officers are authorized to carry a patrol rifle if they choose and must meet department standards and qualifications," St. John wrote. "Our policy stipulates when the rifle can be deployed. That includes any school environment. And, they have been put in (in) the past."

School District 2 has made several security-minded changes in recent years, including adopting a buzz-in system through locked doors in all of its schools. But school trustees haven’t considered policies changing the role of SROs or using a Montana law that allows them to arm people in schools other than law enforcement.

Billings police don’t have a formal recommendation about arming school employees.

Shooting response

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.

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Lockwood training patient

Lockwood staff members Kevin Sparrow and Allan Hutton check "victim" Nick Anderson as undersheriff Kevin Evans provides cover during a simulated active shooter scenario in 2015 at the Lockwood fire station.

On Thursday, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department announced that a deputy on duty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High responded to the shooting but didn’t enter the school.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said that Deputy Scot Peterson waited outside the building for about four minutes without ever going in. The shooting lasted about six minutes.

Peterson resigned after Israel suspended him without pay.

Israel said he made the decision after reviewing video surveillance and interviewing witnesses, including the deputy. The sheriff says Peterson responded to the building where the shooting took place, took up a position outside a door and never went in.

When asked what Peterson should have done, Israel said the deputy should have "went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer."

"What matters is that, when we in law enforcement arrive at an active shooter, we go in and address the target," he said. "And that's what should have been done."

Student walkouts, school threats: The gun debate in Montana
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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.