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Aiming for solutions

Lawmakers and activists' quest for school safety


March 16, 2018

Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

Jim, left, and Bill Evans, co-owners of Bing 'n' Bob's Sport Shop in Havre, pose for a photograph in their store. The two agree that the problem with school shootings in the United States is a societal problem, not a gun problem.

When school shootings happen, the ripple effect of those waves wash up on Havre's prairie shores.

"There are multiple layers of effects. School is supposed to be a safe place, for one thing," said District Superintendent Andy Carlson Tuesday. "There's an element of fear and I don't think anybody can deny that. I think there's a realization that it can happen."

The first known national school shooting is believed to have happened July 26, 1764, in present day Greencastle, Pennsylvania, when four Lenape Native Americans killed a schoolmaster and nine children. Two-and-a half centuries, many school shootings later, and just a little over a month ago - on Valentines Day - a 19-year-old killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a slaughter that has sparked national protests, student school walkouts, rapid legislative changes in Florida, and lots of talk about proposed bills and various changes all over the nation.

Montana is no stranger to school shootings. In 1986, a 14-year-old shot and killed a substitute teacher in a Fergus County high school. He also shot others who survived. In 1994, a 10-year-old at Margaret Leary Elementary shot and killed 11-year-old Jeremy Bullock.

Before the 2017-2018 school year began, school resource officer Josh Holt put on multiple Standard Response Protocol presentations to all Havre Public School employees to prepare them for, among other things, school shooters. Holt had said that no school, no matter how rural or how small, is immune from the possibility of a shooter.

The fear is real, as evidenced by the many parents who kept their children out of school Feb. 23 after someone had written in a Havre High bathroom stall the previous day that there would be a shooting. After an investigation, police and district leaders decided the threat wasn't credible enough to cancel school the next day.

Low classroom attendance indicated that for many parents, that wasn't enough. A 15-year-old boy was arrested four days later in relation to the threat.

While he said he understands parental concern - he too is a parent - Carlson expressed some frustration with the way that scenario turned out.

"Maybe we haven't done a great job communicating to the community what we do have in place," he said. "You can't anticipate every scenario, but we do have plans and protocols for most every incident we might face. Every single staff member has had some training and they continue to do training, including some online portion they just did.

"We have more in place than people realize," he said.

One of the most exasperating things, Carlson said, with slight reservations, is the preventive safety measures Montana schools are not legally allowed to take.

"Secondary locking devices, in my opinion, make a lot of sense," he said. "Right now, current Montana code says you can't use them."

Secondary locking devices - compact locks that can be attached to any individual classroom door - are illegal because of current fire codes, Carlson said. Doors do get locked at the schools, but it's not an efficient or dependable system.

"For one thing, just standardized locks across the school system with the amount of funds we have available - sometimes that isn't even a reality in Montana," he said. "The hard part is even though we lock our interior doors, you have substitutes coming and going, getting keys - we don't have the resources nor the way to track who's in and out."

Carlson believes that a dependable locking system makes more sense than arming teachers, an idea he's not fond of at all.

"We are not trained law enforcement people," he said. "There's a reason why law enforcement people have all the training they have."

There's a significant difference between a self defense situation and one that involves a school, he said. One of the first things taught in hunter safety is that the bullet doesn't stop right at its target.

"So imagine being an educator and you're armed and you're thrust into the position where you're having to respond to a school shooting - there's other innocent people in the hallway," he said. "Best case scenario is you actually hit the intended target who is the actual perpetrator. The bullet is not going to stop there."

Combating an armed intruder is not the same as hunting or target shooting, Carlson, a hunter, said.

"I don't want to be a superintendent where an educator ends up shooting a kid. On a national level we're ignoring some of those byproducts of what happens even when trained law enforcement shoot criminal. ... That there is a pretty big burden."

However, for Carlson, there is the possibility of a caveat to his stance.

"I may respond differently if I'm 200 miles from the nearest sheriff. And I know that some of our communities in Montana, that's the reality," Carlson said.

The Montana Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense agree that arming teachers is not the answer. The group, who claims active volunteers in Flathead Valley, Missoula, Bitterroot Valley, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman and Billings, "with more in the works," believes there should be measures that would make it more difficult for people who shouldn't have firearms to have them.

Volunteer lead Kiely Lammers offered the following statement via email Tuesday:

"Montana has a long history of responsible gun ownership, and we have been so thrilled to see growing momentum on the ground to advance common-sense gun safety measures. ... Their tireless activism has been instrumental in ensuring Montana maintains its common-sense approach to gun violence prevention. We saw this approach from Gov. Bullock when he vetoed a bill that would have dismantled the concealed carry permit requirement and made it easy for people with dangerous histories or no firearms safety training to carry hidden, loaded handguns in public. And we saw it from lawmakers in the House when they voted down a bill that would have forced guns into ours K-12 schools."

Lammers said Moms Demand Action continues to urge Montana lawmakers and those representatives in D.C. to pass "proven measures that keep our kids and communities safe."

The group supports practical steps such as red flag laws that empower family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily block a person from having guns if they pose a danger to themselves or others, background checks on all commercial firearm sales, disarming domestic abusers and closing the "boyfriend loophole," Lammers said, referring to laws that would prevent men with domestic abuse records to have firearms.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., agreed that common-sense laws are part of the answer.

"As a former Big Sandy teacher and school board member, I am pushing Congress to pass common-sense bills that will keep our schools safe and protect our way of life on the Hi-Line. If folks put politics aside, we can pass bipartisan bills today to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, and folks who courts deem mentally unfit to own firearms - while at the same time protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners," Tester said in an email Thursday.

In addition to laws, Tester said he is pushing Congress to take action on two other initiatives meant to keep Montana schools safe, invest in better mental health care and eliminate the shortage of mental health care professionals in Montana; and fix the reporting gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check system to make sure that no criminals fall in jurisdiction gaps between local, state and federal law enforcement.

While some lawmakers agree with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, at least two Montana legislators don't.

"Restricting firearms or raising age restrictions are feel good measures that will not make our students safer," said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in a phone interview Wednesday.

Daines said he has spent time with multiple survivors of the Parkland shooting, and during all his visits, there was no mention of firearm or bump stocks restrictions. Instead, "we talked about how to stop the violence," he said.

One answer, Daines said, was a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the STOP School Violence Act. The bill has 35 cosponsors, including 15 Democrats, a press release says.

The bill would aim to "train students, school personnel, and local law enforcement to identify warning signs and intervene to stop school violence before it happens; improve school security infrastructure to deter and respond to threats of school violence, including the development and implementation of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence; develop and operate school threat assessment and crisis intervention teams; and facilitate coordination between schools and local law enforcement."

The STOP School Violence Act would also authorize $75 million for fiscal year 2018, and $100 million annually for the next 10 years.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., agrees with Daines.

"I don't believe we have a gun problem. We have a mental illness problem, we have a breakdown of families," Gianforte said Wednesday in a phone interview. "This is where, as communities, we need to focus to make sure that people who are disturbed or are criminals get the help they need or are locked up so they can't hurt other people."

Banning AR style rifles or raising the minimum age to buy firearms are not necessary, Gianforte added.

"I think we have to focus on getting troubled youth the help they need. Penalizing law-abiding citizens is not the solution," he said. "We already have rules on the book that say it's illegal to kill people. That did not prevent what happened in Florida."

What happened in Darby High School in Ravalli County a few days after the Parkland shooting - where "we saw a failure of the FBI and law enforcement" - is a stark contrast that points to how communities should react to prevent such tragedies, Gianforte said. Daines agreed with Gianforte the Ravalli County incident is a good example of how best to handle a potential shooter.

According to the Ravalli Republic newspaper, 18-year-old MacLean William Kayser was arrested and booked on a felony charge of assault with a weapon after posting something "disturbing" on the social media outlet, Snapchat.

That's a good example of students, parents and local police working together to prevent a possible tragedy, Gianforte and Daines said.

The idea that students play an integral part in detecting and stopping potential shooters is key at Havre public schools, Carlson said. Signs that say, "See something, say something. Hear something, do something" have been posted all over district schools. It was a student who first reported the threat found in Havre High's bathroom stall, Carlson had said after news of the incident broke.

On Wednesday, students in schools all over the nation, including cities in Montana, took part in a coordinated 17-minute walkout to bring attention to the need for school safety and to "end gun violence." Some students at Havre High and Havre Middle School did as well.

Local gun store co-owner of Bing 'N' Bob's Sport Shop Bill Evans said he loves children and young people, but he draws the line at taking his legislative cues or advice from them.

"I love children, but I don't think they're smart enough to tell me what to do," Bill Evans said Wednesday.

Young people have more accidents and others are more likely to be killed by young people with cellphones in their hands while driving than by a gunman in a school, he added.

The problem with school violence is a societal breakdown, said Jim Evans, the other store co-owner.

Bing 'N' Bob's carries many different handguns and rifles, including AR-15s.

Evans said banning ARs is a slippery slope because that could lead to many semi-automatic firearms that have the capability to have large ammo magazines attached, since that's all an AR is anyway.

Although cited by many sources as the most popular rifle in the U.S., Evans said that's not what he sees in his store. The most popular rifles in this region are long-range shooters.

Both Evanses went back to what they see as the problem, people, a society that has changed.

Things have, indeed, changed, Carlson said, citing his start in education as proof.

"I never thought I'd be trained to keep my students safe from an armed intruder - we didn't do that. I didn't get that on my first day of teaching," Carlson said. "That was only 20 years ago, a little over 20, but my point, it's had an effect."


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