By Christin Rzasa
School officials in the Bitterroot Valley are making the safety of their facilities a priority, and this past October, they learned how to help the public sector do the same. School administrators and personnel from most of the valley’s school districts, along with members of the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department and Rocky Mountain Laboratories, took part in the National School Shield (NSS) program, a five-day, intensive training session to certify facility safety assessors. Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton coordinated the event, which consisted of both classroom instruction and field work, and – in partnership with Corvallis Schools – culminated in the formal evaluation of Corvallis High School.
“We believe strongly that our schools need to be safe places for our kids,” Sheriff Holton explained. “If we [the sheriff’s department] can’t be there all the time, we need to make sure that those school districts have the resources available to make that happen.”
Many schools in the Bitterroot have participated in the Safariland Armed Intruder Training (AIT), which teaches educators how to respond to a “planned negative action.” The NSS program, on the other hand, focuses on training people to evaluate a facility for potential vulnerabilities to a wide range of threats, both natural and man-made. The resulting assessment identifies the physical attributes of the facility and its environment that could affect how personnel meet that challenge.
“The Safariland program is great training for when something is happening,” says Holton. “We were trying to find something that would be the next step… to mitigate or reduce the threat of something happening.”
There are private assessors for hire who can evaluate a facility, but their fees can be prohibitive. Eric Larson, the Director of Student Services for Hamilton Public Schools, took part in the NSS training course and is an enthusiastic advocate of the program. As an administrator in the District for the past eleven years, Larson says safety has always been a priority for him. He was, in fact, considering hiring an assessor to evaluate the District schools when Sheriff Holton approached him about the training program.
“I was contacting private companies to come in and do a vulnerability assessment for our schools, and it’s very expensive,” Larson said. The NSS program offered the chance for participants to become certified assessors and then be able to do their own evaluations. Tim Johnson, Superintendent of the Corvallis School District, also participated in the training course and agrees that having certified assessors on his staff is a great advantage for the District financially.
“Because we have trained assessors, we’re not dependent upon calling out to a contractor to have one of them come in and do this… each time we have a variation or new construction,” Johnson says. “And we now have a cadre of assessors in the valley [who] understand the Bitterroot. We have a different culture in the valley than in Missoula or Kalispell, so we know how things work here.”
With the variety of trained assessors in the valley, the likelihood of getting a team together to perform an evaluation is much better, Johnson points out. “The typical cost of something like this for a district our size would be in the thousands of dollars,” he says. “If any organization, any institution [wants an assessment], we can organize a team and go do an assessment for them, free of charge.”
Larson is also excited about the prospect of offering facility evaluations to the public at no cost. “What’s awesome about it is I can go into any facility – a bank or any small business – with this kind of knowledge. I can go into my home and do an assessment.”
Ideally, an evaluation team would represent a variety of perspectives: law enforcement, school administrators, resource officers, and maintenance personnel. Both Johnson and Larson were impressed with the comprehensiveness of the assessment training.
“It’s a facility evaluation, a comprehensive look at safety, structural vulnerabilities, opportunities for threats…a broad view that starts from outside of a district’s facilities and works its way into the core where the students are,” Johnson said. “It’s important to have outside perspectives as well because you can get complacent [with your own facility].”
Larson echoed that sentiment, especially after his team recently completed their report on the Hamilton High School structure. “We found things that I wasn’t even aware of,” he adds, “and I’ve been looking at this for eleven years now. I like the ‘big-picture’ of it. It’s not just about if you have an armed intruder. You’re looking at everything – transportation, traffic flow – acknowledging strengths and pointing out vulnerabilities.”
Although the NSS training program is offered free of cost through a grant from the National Rifle Association, arming teachers was never mentioned, and the possibility of a violent intruder was only one of the safety threats considered. Potential natural disasters, vehicle accidents, and structural catastrophes (like a gas pipeline eruption) have to be kept in mind, according to Larson.
“You didn’t even hear about the sponsor,” he insists. “If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t even know it was the NRA. Regardless of what anybody thinks about different organizations, I was super-impressed with the two individuals [who ran the training] and why they’re doing it. It was a true acknowledgement of the need for free training and the necessity to keep our kids safe. That was the core belief behind their involvement.”
Sheriff Holton concurs. “The NSS program brings this in at no charge to us. Our only costs were the time it took to put our staff through it. Politics aside, it’s a good program, and we’ll take advantage of a good program.”
Besides the financial advantages to school districts having their own trained assessors and being able to offer their services to the public, the training programs (both the NSS and the Safariland AIT) have brought a new level of communication among the valley’s school personnel and law enforcement. For Sheriff Holton, “That collaboration between the school districts and between the schools and law enforcement is a big thing. Just having personal relationships and working with somebody goes a long way toward opening lines of communication. From the law enforcement perspective, it’s great to work with those superintendents and have a basic understanding of their response plans, to mesh those goals together.”
Superintendent Johnson agrees that better communication is a valuable outcome of the event. “An important piece that this program provides is continuity – making sure that we’re talking the same language, using the same process – so it’s not a patchwork of different ideas.”
In Larson’s opinion as well, the valley’s school district personnel and the sheriff’s department communicate more and better since they began working on safety issues. Each school district gets focused in on what’s going on in their community, Larson explains, “…but since we started doing the mutual trainings, I can’t believe the communication!” He adds, “It’s so much easier now to pick up the phone and call administrators in other school districts or Sheriff Holton to discuss issues that arise.” Before the combined training sessions, he admits, he probably wouldn’t have been as open to asking for their opinions. “Collaboration is the best thing that we can do” to ensure a safe educational environment here in the Bitterroot. “It’s not only knowing whom to call but knowing that I can call – no matter what – and the response will be, ‘What can we do to support you?’”
Larson looks forward to doing more assessments. Some members of the Hamilton Schools team are working on their third vulnerability assessment, this one for the Darby School District.
“I can’t wait to get more experience ‘under our belt,’” says Larson. “You start seeing things faster. With anything, as you practice, you get better at it. You can give better input the more experience you have. You can’t stop everything, but if you have the planning and the preparation, you can have a quicker reaction, something that’s almost habit, not something you have to think about and ask, ‘what do I do now?’”
Both school administrators said that the training course was intense but well worth the effort and time, and both say it has changed the way they view their workplaces and what they have to offer their communities. Larson takes it one step further.
“You look at things a little differently [after going through the workshop],” he admits. “What it’s done for me as a professional as well as in my personal life, I’m impressed.”