Gazette opinion: Upgrading school safety communication

Gazette opinion: Upgrading school safety communication


On Tuesday, reports of young men possibly carrying a gun into Billings Senior High School prompted a lockdown of the school and massive law enforcement response from local, state and federal agencies. 

Billings Public Schools immediately posted notice of the lockdown on its website and made robocalls to Senior High parents.

No one was injured. Two male students were detained two miles from the school en route to the home of one of the students. They had airsoft guns, non-lethal devices that shoot tiny plastic pellets. Classes resumed after about two hours of interruption.

The Senior High response was much different than, a week earlier when a threat received at Lewis and Clark Middle School was found not to be credible and robocalls to parents were deemed unnecessary — until reports of the threat leaked out through texts and social media.

On Oct. 15, the Lewis and Clark County sheriff told Helena journalists that his department was investigating an improvised explosive device that had detonated on a local elementary school playground. The story immediately went nationwide, and was posted on The Billings Gazette website. The school was evacuated, but the sheriff soon walked back the detonation report. Turned out the "device" was a plastic bottle that had been filled with rocks and nails that a child had kicked, strewing the contents around the bottle.

By the time the story was printed in newspapers the next day, the big news was the incorrect report of an explosion. Gazette online viewers, and many folks in Helena understandably were upset with the media that the first reports were wrong.

The Lewis and Clark County sheriff subsequently announced that his office would change its communication policy to avoid releasing incorrect information.

Journalism provides the first draft of history, and sometime it's a very rough draft that is improved with time as more facts and context become available. At The Billings Gazette and other Montana Lee Newspapers, reporters and editors strive to get the facts straight quickly before anything goes online or in print. But when deadlines loom and online readers expect breaking news, mistakes can happen. Our job includes correcting those mistakes as soon as possible.

Both law enforcement authorities in Helena and school leaders in Billings learned from last week's scares. The Senior High gun report on Tuesday was taken seriously and parents were promptly informed. Superintendent Greg Upham and Billings Police Chief Rich St. John personally went to Senior High and jointly held a press conference explaining what had transpired.

Sending 30 officers to Senior High might seem like overkill. But we think the response was appropriate. What if this had been an actual emergency and the BPD failed to adequately respond to a school filled with 2,000 teens and teachers?

The police didn't know what they had till they were on the scene and investigated. Getting factual information quickly to parents and the community is crucial because during a school lockdown, false, frightening reports spread like wildfire via text and word of mouth.

The Billings Gazette news staff wants to get information fast, but we also want the most accurate, complete information. Balancing those two goals can be tricky, especially in the 24/7 news cycle. Our mission is to achieve that balance with every story. 


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