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Safety audit finds 'inconsistencies' in security, BPS to place school safety levies on May ballot

Billings Gazette - 2/11/2024

Feb. 9—Billings Public Schools' trustees plan to place an elementary and high school safety levy on the May 2024 election ballot.

The resolution for the levies was passed at the December school board meeting, and was recommended by the district's budget committee, in response to results from the district's safety audit done last year.

The audit informed the district of its pressing needs to better boost school safety and security. Areas of concern, which the levies could fund, include personnel and practices in prevention, intervention and communication, and various infrastructure resources.

The district's budget committee recommended the levies as a logical step to bridge the gap between the district's needs and the district's ideal state. The current recommendation from district administration is for both safety levies to be permanent, and for both to include a dollar amount that ranges from $2 million to $3 million annually.

Meanwhile, SD2 has devised two committees to work on the next steps in addressing safety needs: the District Safety Committee and the Parent Advisory Safety Committee. Both committees are comprised of individuals with backgrounds pertaining to safety practices. SD2 safety and emergency management Coordinator Joe Halligan is mapping out short and long-term plans to address the needs.

Halligan believes the district is moving in the right direction when it comes to taking care of the safety audit's recommendations and stated they've tackled a number of recommendations already.

Superintendent Erwin Garcia said the safety audit, which was conducted by Secure Environment Consultants, a group of experts that assess school districts across the nation, made 58 recommendations for all schools in the district and others per individual school buildings.

Following the audit, Garcia said the district went to work to resolve what recommendations they could, and met with school resource officers, police officials and firefighters for training on active shooter emergency drills and unification plans. To Garcia, the need to act is urgent.

"I told my team, we're not going to sit around and just wait for the safety levy to pass to do things. We have to act now," said Garcia. "There is a variety of things that we have to include to be able to fully serve our kids and safety is the number one thing that we need to consider."

Halligan stressed that even though the district is doing everything they can to boost the safety of district schools, big ticket items such as updated surveillance, intercom systems and other infrastructural needs can't be addressed with general funding.

"It helped reveal some things that we can shore up, and a lot of those things are being addressed, but we're kind of limited as to what we can do because of limited resources," said Halligan. "We're seeking grant funding for as much as we can, but there's a limit to those dollars as well."

Additional funding could help implement a variety of proactive approaches in prevention and intervention recommended by SEC, including specialized personnel in safety, mental health, dropout prevention, gang prevention, a medical emergency response team, character development programs, nurses, counselors, and more. SEC personnel recommended that all school staff be trained to identify concerning incidents and behaviors, and recommended social media monitoring as well, stating that a significant portion of communication is done via social media.

"Research has shown most school-based targeted violent attacks are preceded by threats or concerning behaviors," stated SEC. "The ability to identify behaviors and intervene can prevent attacks and provide opportunities to help and support students in need."

SEC also recommended the district find long-term funding in order to upgrade technology systems and make updates in the future, including installation of a visitor management system, an external and internal public announcement system, evacuation chairs for disabled, and a laundry list of other resources.

Aside from technology and personnel, SEC urges the district to button up their methodologies, stating that "inconsistent processes create a gap in security and can foster a culture of complacency."

SEC recommended continual training of office staff on visitor management and urges staff to adhere to protocol with visitors unfamiliar to staff. SEC personnel noted in their report that they were not vetted or made to sign in at some of the buildings.

Since the audit, Halligan has been working to get the district on the same page when it comes to emergency practices, involving school staff, SROs, local law enforcement and other community members.

"Consistent messaging across the board is going to be huge," said Halligan. "Making sure that all of our teachers are adequately trained on not only the terminology and the verbiage, but also what to do in each of those situations."

There are three pillars to safety readiness: Trained personnel, proven processes, and adequate equipment and technology, Halligan said. Risk increases when one or more of those are missing.

"It's allowing our teachers exposure and training so that they are better able to respond in a critical incident rather than react," said Halligan. "A response is much different than a reaction. When we have time to think about things before they happen, it allows teachers to respond in a more effective and accurate way given the circumstances."

School administration will present official ballot language of the safety levies to district trustees for discussion at the Feb. 26 school board meeting, at 5:30 p.m. in the Lincoln Center board room.

The safety audit cost approximately $69,000 and was paid for out of the general fund.

"It came about because we heard from the community that they were very concerned about safety. We did a survey in June to which about 2,300 people responded," said SD2 spokeswoman Melanie Willardson. "In that survey, 28.3% of respondents felt schools were safe. Because of that low number, we realized this was an area we needed to focus on."

Multiple students gave written responses to the survey, depicting concern over their own safety in school.

One student's response was, "Maybe don't let school shooting attempts happen. I'd kinda prefer to not be (explicative) shot. Maybe add some kind of security, man. Just want to go to school and ya know, not die? Is that too difficult?"

Other concerns included a lack of working technology for classrooms, not enough school counselors, overheating in class, dress codes going unenforced, and a lack of socioeconomic acceptance.

"Issues like homophobia, racism, and other bigoted behaviors seem to run rampant in school district two," a student stated. "I truly hope that someday public school will feel welcoming and safe for every student that walks through its doors, but right now I really don't see it providing that for anyone other than the privileged kids who treat others like garbage."


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