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Montana schools bring in special marshal to keep kids safe | #schoolsaftey


Shouts and squeals echoed across the playground behind Big Sky’s Ophir Elementary as some two dozen kids reveled in one of their final recesses before the big sigh of summer break. Beneath the blistering spring sun, a young girl dashed away from a half-dome lattice of climbing bars, nearly tripping in the wood chips as she sidled up to Matt Daugherty.

“How are you doing?” he asked, his sunglasses and school ID badge hanging from the front of his blue polo.

“I did a front flip,” she replied matter-of-factly.

As Daugherty continued to stroll past, two more students raced up the sidewalk, a paraeducator hot on their heels. Daugherty’s red beard drew up in a grin as he called out, “They’re keeping you running today!” He repositioned the walkie-talkie clipped at his side and continued walking up the hill behind Ophir, past a fenced-off construction area and toward his office in a windowed corner of Lone Peak High School.

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Last fall, the Big Sky School District hired Matt Daugherty as its new marshal, becoming the first district in the state to create such a position. Daugherty, who hails from a background in law enforcement, said one of his top priorities in the job is to foster relationships with students and keep his finger on the “pulse” of Big Sky’s campus.




Midway through the 2022-23 school year, Daugherty joined the Big Sky district full-time as its inaugural school marshal. It’s a first-of-its-kind position in Montana, made possible by the 2021 Legislature’s passage of a law sponsored by then-Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. The post is so new, in fact, that when Big Sky’s board of trustees began considering its creation last fall, Superintendent Dustin Shipman had no peers with marshals to turn to for insight. Now Daugherty and the district are learning as they go, tending to a growing list of administrative responsibilities in the name of student safety.

In an era when the threat of violence in schools manifests in a near-constant drumbeat of national headlines, education officials across Montana have increasingly turned to infrastructure upgrades and new staff positions to prepare for a variety of gut-wrenching scenarios that no longer feel improbable. Camera systems, shatterproof glass, electronic door locks and local agreements with law enforcement agencies have become more common than not over the past decade, in districts large and small alike.

In the past six months, threats delivered via phone, email and social media have put schools in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula and West Yellowstone on lockdown. As Bozeman Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram put it, “school violence doesn’t pick and choose communities.” Early in his 21-year career in public education, Bertram said, violence seemed more confined to rare events such as the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, and schools nationwide would dramatically change their safety policies in the aftermath. Today, the specter of school violence feels different to him.

“Now it feels like they’re so close together that it feels like it could happen in your backyard, it could happen in your state, and that’s a daunting feeling,” Bertram said.



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Matt Daugherty, the Big Sky School District’s new marshal, reviews a binder of safety materials including an emergency response plan he’s now in the process of updating and improving. 




The position Skees’ bill authorized — the school marshal — was designed in large part to insert a trained defender between students and anyone who might do them harm. And that’s a position Daugherty has occupied before, first as a K-9 handler in the U.S. Air Force, then in a succession of law enforcement gigs with the Lewistown Police Department and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. He spent his final eight years with the latter serving as the regional sergeant in Big Sky, during which time the sheriff’s office created a school resource officer post in the district, one currently occupied by Daugherty’s former colleague, Deputy Travis Earl.

That history has marked Daugherty with the straight back and vigilant eyes of a seasoned lawman. But he is among the first to stress that his new station is far different, and far more nuanced, than any he’s held before. He and the district are still working to determine the contours of those nuances, and articulate them to a Big Sky community filled with questions and more than a few concerns. The marshal stands as one example of the strategies schools across Montana are implementing to meet what Superintendent Shipman considers one of public education’s top priorities.



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Emily Sallee heads the University of Montana’s Safe Schools Center, which offers an array of services to public schools including no-cost hazard assessments. Sallee said that while some safety improvements her team identifies come with a steep price tag, others are relatively cheap or even free, such as closely monitoring people entering a school.  




“The safety of our students is front of mind for me, be it an icy road or an active shooter,” Shipman said. “That’s one of the biggest responsibilities we as school administrators and teachers have. It’s me, it’s the principals — everybody has that responsibility on the front of their mind every day.”

Fulfilling that responsibility is now Daugherty’s primary role. Square-shouldered and fit, with the affable demeanor of a dad whose own child belongs to the student body now in his charge, he greets the district’s children daily at the schools’ front doors. His goal in doing so, he said, is to be a positive, visible presence for them — and to build the trust and rapport necessary to spot any early signs of turbulence in their lives.

“Having a (finger on the) pulse and having eye contact with kids when they’re on their way into school, with parents when they’re on their way into school, you just get a feel of where things are at,” Daugherty said.

‘WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED’

On April 5, Caroline Lurgio yanked down the blinds in her Hellgate High School classroom, locked the door and, with help from a student, barricaded it with tables. With the room dark, her third-period English class grouped in a corner, and a heavy stick and can of wasp spray at the ready, Lurgio waited, poised to attack anyone who might try to force their way in.

Minutes ticked by, maybe 20. Time got weird. Lurgio knew nothing about what might be happening beyond her makeshift barricade. She knew only what she’d read in an email minutes after class started, the email Hellgate’s principal, via the PA system, had directed staff to read: Hellgate was in full lockdown — a response, Lurgio gradually learned, to a threat involving a gun posted to social media by a student.

Outside, Missoula police officers and other local law enforcement personnel began systematically sweeping the school grounds, searching for the responsible student. Authorities also shut down a two-block stretch of Higgins Avenue just south of the commercial Hip Strip corridor, having quickly determined that the student was not on Hellgate property. As the search continued, so did the lockdown. Lurgio kept checking in with her students, gauging their emotional states and gleaning information they’d learned about the situation from their own social media accounts. After a while, she broke out some colored pencils and passed them around.

“It’s amazing what colored pencils and a blank piece of paper can do,” Lurgio told Montana Free Press. “Just the calmness of drawing is something that was really helpful.”

That same day, state representatives 100 miles away in Helena cast one of their final votes on a Senate bill requiring annual reviews of school safety plans and addressing consistency concerns related to state-mandated threat assessment teams. Senate Bill 213 passed on a bipartisan 82-18 vote.

All told, Lurgio and her class sheltered in the dark for three hours before the principal announced a plan to safely dismiss students for the day. Across Missoula, 15 other public schools had been placed under so-called soft lock-ins as well, their buildings closed to outsiders but their normal routines continuing indoors. As Lurgio finally opened the blinds, afternoon sunlight poured into the room.

“I guess we hadn’t really realized how dark it had been for so long,” Lurgio said. “As soon as (the students) left, we sort of all cried a bit, a lot of letting down. At that point, you let your guard down, you recognize what happened, what could have happened.”

The following day — the same day SB 213 cleared its final House vote — a fuller picture of the goings-on at Hellgate emerged for public consumption. According to media reports, a threat of an active shooter posted to Snapchat was brought to the attention of Hellgate’s school resource officer, prompting the lockdown and an immediate response by local police, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Montana Highway Patrol and the FBI. There’d been no such shooter, but Missoula County Public Schools spokesperson Vinny Giammona acknowledged that even without actual violence, an incident involving SWAT team sweeps and closed roads and locked doors districtwide “tugs at all of us.”

“The unique thing in that scenario is there wasn’t just a lockdown at Hellgate, but that lockdown eventually led to a lock-in of all of our other buildings in Missoula,” Giammona said. “That created another layer, because now you’re messaging essentially 17 buildings that they’re in some sort of safety lock-in, lockdown, which as you can imagine is going to be scary for the majority of our parents across the city.”

Like Bozeman Schools Superintendent Bertram, Giammona has noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere around school safety. After dedicating its attention during the COVID-19 pandemic to statewide shutdowns and hybrid attendance models, he said, MCPS has now turned its focus to crafting a consistent response to any kind of crisis. That means training staff, installing more cameras, developing crisis response teams for each building, and soliciting voter support for two school facilities levies last month to help pay for additional upgrades. Both passed.

As a result, the Missoula district is already doing much of what SB 213 will now require statewide. But the Hellgate incident was a stark reminder that there are always improvements to be made. For instance, Giammona said, the difference between Hellgate’s “lockdown” and the lock-ins at other schools — where facilities were secured, but daily activities continued indoors — was murky for some parents. MCPS is reexamining the language it uses as part of a broader refinement of its real-time communication strategy. As the nature of threats to schools evolves, so does the district’s responses.

“Social media has really changed the landscape,” Giammona said. “It’s changed access, it’s changed the ability to make a threat.”



Jeremy House

Jeremy House is the new safety coordinator for School District 2 in Billings.




For Billings Public Schools, that evolution led to the hiring this spring of former Billings police officer Jeremy House as the district’s new safety coordinator. Like Big Sky’s marshal, the position is a first in the state’s public education system. House will serve primarily as the administrative nerve center for safety coordination across Billings schools, reviewing emergency protocols and improving preparedness. And his installment in the post comes during a school year punctuated by a December lockdown at Billings West High School — part of a rash of simultaneous phone threats that also struck schools in Helena, Red Lodge and Forsyth.

Law enforcement quickly determined the threat was false, and the lockdown was lifted within half an hour. But according to Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham, it wasn’t the only event last fall to drive home the need for a safety coordinator. That same week, a pair of threats scrawled on bathroom walls prompted many West High parents to pull their students from school for a day. Upham said investigators “couldn’t find the source of that threat,” and classes were held on the date mentioned in the threat with a heightened police presence and what Upham described as “very, very low” student attendance. A separate threat against Billings Senior High School posted to social media that same week resulted in the arrest of one student.

“It’s like a loss of innocence,” Upham said.



Upham

Outgoing Billings Schools Superintendent Greg Upham said he’s felt a distinct shift in the atmosphere around school safety in the past decade. Numerous threats of violence last year underscored his district’s decision to hire the state’s first school safety coordinator, but as he retires, Upham still feels as though he’s “leaving people on the battlefield.”  




When House came on board this spring, Upham made a point to introduce him to staff at every school in Billings to talk about not just his plans for the district, but what individual educators can do to protect and care for themselves. Upham — who’s retiring this summer — sees threats of shootings and resulting lockdowns as “one more added stressor” on the school community, layered on top of evolving pandemic protocols and the heated masking debates of recent years. While Upham said he hasn’t seen those stressors dampen teachers’ enthusiasm, he does see a need to respond with strength and unity, because “we can’t just keep being the victim.”

“I just refuse to be scared all the time, and I don’t want our people being scared all the time,” Upham said. “It’s a great profession. It takes care of kids. I’m passionate about this, but this is what concerns me about retiring. I feel like I’m leaving people on the battlefield.”



Senior High lockdown

School resource officer Mitch Hillier, front, and other Billings Police officers search cars in the parking lot of Billings Senior High after the school was locked down during a weapons incident Tuesday.




In Missoula, Lurgio’s memory of lockdown remains vivid, an experience she said will undoubtedly live in the collective culture of Hellgate for years to come. She’s thankful that her 18-year tenure as a Montana teacher has included active shooter training, which she said should be mandatory. When the lockdown started, Lurgio already had her classroom stocked with drinking water, and privacy blankets and a bucket for a makeshift bathroom, and she knew precisely what to do, making a quick pivot from a discussion about Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the hushed intensity of a survival situation. Her demeanor, she said, seemed to reassure her students, a current of confidence cutting through the tense atmosphere.

Still, Lurgio said, she feels a profound sadness about the event. Sadness for colleagues who didn’t have her level of training, for seniors whose high school years were bookended by the descent into a global pandemic and the sudden shock of a lockdown, and for a struggling student who’d put their school on high alert.

“It’s silly to think that now my classroom is more than just a place for learning,” Lurgio said. “It’s now an environment that needs to have all these extra resources, and I need to be prepared and think about these things. Those are definitely lasting effects.”



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