GFPs discusses school safety, SRO program, youth behaviors

Superintendent Tom Moore updated the school board on last week’s incident at East Middle School during their Oct. 11 meeting. The board also received the 2021 Safe and Secure Schools Report during the meeting.

Moore said as soon as officials were informed of students making threats toward each other and the school, officials acted quickly. He said that such incidents, which happen frequently in middle school, are handled quickly because of the relationship between Great Falls Public Schools and the Great Falls Police Department.

Moore said the district has to deal with “people not treating each other real well sometimes.”

GFPS addresses process for threat investigations

He said they have to take it seriously and investigate threats.

Most are just words, he said, but they still investigate and there have been instances of school closures, or not opening school, due to a threat or incident near a school.

Moore said that most of the work is done behind the scenes and, “I know that with social media proliferation we’ve experienced…it makes it more and more difficult to communicate clearly fact from fiction.”

He said the district works to get information to parents and public as quickly as possible, but, “I hope the community understands that we can’t always talk about the detail of these investigations immediately, we have to make sure we get our facts straight” and protect the statutory requirements.

Two students charged in connection with Oct. 5 incident at East Middle School

During the meeting, GFPD presented the annual school resource officer report. The district contracts with the city for four SROs, all of whom are detectives. The officers are assigned to different schools to work with students, faculty and staff, providing a presence, handling any issues, and meeting with students in an attempt to prevent problems and reduce the number of students ending up in the criminal justice system.

The district and GFPD have partnered for 24 years for the SRO program, Moccasin said.

GFPD, GFPS provide annual SRO report to school board [2020]

Capt. Rob Moccasin of the GFPD said that for the 2020-2021 school year, SROs handles 440 complaints, up from 406 the previous year. The previous year it had been a spike with 660 complaints and in 2017-2018, there were 572 complaints, according to GFPD data.

The total police responses last year were lower compared to non-COVID years, Moccasin said, which isn’t surprising given the realities of the pandemic with less students in school, remote learning and closures.

Moccasin said that SROs spent 390 hours during the last school year speaking with students about a range of topics and that broke down to 1,170 students, up by 112 students from the previous year. SROs informally mentor students, or simply chat about their lives, Moccasin said.

Of the students mentored by SROs in the last school year, 97 entered the criminal justice or youth court systems, Moccasin, up slightly from 92 the previous year.

He said they want to keep everyone safe, but also want to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system as much as possible.

City approves SRO contract for next school year

SROs did 44 classroom presentations last school year on a range of topics, Moccasin said.

The number of calls in elementary schools rose from 146 to 190 last school year, but still down from the spike of 261 during the 2018-2019 school year.

Moccasin said SROs also work with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services; oversee the protocol for crisis intervention; frequently engage in welfare checks at home for students and their parents/guardians; frequently review custody paperwork; provide education and conduct investigations related to the Internet Crimes Against Children task force; work security at school related events; and routinely answer calls during non-duty hours.

In the case of threats to a school, if there’s a lockdown or shelter in place, an SRO will go to the district office to liaise between GFPD and the district administration, and provide 24/7 response when necessary.

Moccasin said the SROs conduct investigations and work the minimize the impact to the affected school.

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Kim Skornogoski, school board member, asked about changes made after the ACLU report from a few years ago that argued the district was punishing minority students at a higher rate.

Moccasin said that’s always a concern, but of the report, “I wouldn’t trust that completely.”

Det. Rob Beall, of GFPD, said that the report included “grossly inaccurate” information and there were definitional issues. He said they contacted the ACLU to provide data, but that even if there was the possibility that it was true, it needed to be looked at.

Beall said that the department and the district worked together to look at it further and make some changes in the SRO program, as well as on patrol.

Moccasin said the department has taken a look at race in policing.

“It’s something that is important to us, he said. “We want to make sure we’re not doing something that can be construed as targeting certain groups of people. That’s not what we’re about.”

Dugan Coburn, GFPS director of Indian education, said that he’s working with assistant superintendents to conduct equity training district wide to help recognize it and “hopefully alleviate it even more.”

He said that the data they’ve seen after making adjustments and improvements have shown positive change.

Andrea Savage, the new student mental health coordinator for GFPS, reviewed the data from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

The survey is sponsored by the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. She said the district has participated since 1991 and the study is conducted every other year.

The study gathers information about risk behaviors for students in grades 7-12.

In the 2021 study, GFPS had 293 high school and 193 middle school students participate.

The report showed a drop in alcohol consumption among high schoolers from 40 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2021. For middle schoolers, it dropped from 33 to 15 percent.

Savage said was likely due to COVID and the lack of social gatherings for students.

Marijuana use dropped among high schoolers from 46 percent in 2019 to 42 percent in 2021 and, in middle schoolers, from 23 to 16 percent for the same years respectively.

The report shows students are also using synthetic marijuana and pain medications, but marijuana remains the drug of choice, Savage said, as well as cigarettes and electronic vaping.

For bullying behaviors, the report showed in 2019 for high schoolers, that 22 percent reported being bullied on school property; 19 percent being bullied electronically; and 14 percent were bullied due to being gay, lesbian or bisexual. In 2021, those numbers were 15 percent; 17 percent and 13 percent respectively.

For middle schoolers, the numbers of bullying rose from 2019 to 2021.

In 2019, 24 percent reported being bullied on school property and that rose to 34 percent in 2021. Twenty-one percent reported being bullied electronically in 2019, which rose to 34 percent in 2021. In 2019, 21 percent of students reported being bullied electronically, which rose to 23 percent in 2021. The number of middle schoolers who reported being bullied due to being gay, lesbian or bisexual rose from 23 percent in 2019 to 30 percent in 2021.

Savage said she wants to look further into why those reports of bullying are increasing for middle schoolers.

The report showed that among high schoolers, 53 percent reported engaging in sexual intercouse in 2019 and that was down to 46 percent for 2021.

The number remained steady both years at 11 percent for high schoolers who reported being physically forced to engage in sex, according to the report.

For middle schoolers, the number went from 16 percent in 2019 to 17 percent in 2021 for those who engaged in sexual intercourse, but increased from five to 10 percent for those who reported being physically forced to engage in sexual activity.

“That is very concerning to me,” Savage said.

The report addresses suicide and depression and found that for high schoolers in 2019, 39 percent felt sad and hopeless daily and that increased to 46 percent in 2021.

The number of high schoolers who reported feeling suicidal stayed the same at 24 percent, but the number of those who reported attempting suicide increased from 10 to 11 percent.

Among high schoolers, the number feeling sad and hopeless went from 36 percent to 34 percent. Those who considered suicide went from 27 to 28 percent and those who reported attempting suicide went from 18 to 17 percent.

“Any percent is too high,” Savage said, for attempting suicide.

The report also tracks video gaming behavior and the impact of the pandemic is apparent in the data, Savage said.

For high schoolers, the number of students reporting they played video games for more than four hours daily went from 29 percent in 2019 to 52 percent in 2021.

For middle schoolers, it went from 31 to 51 percent.

Savage said that several new programs are coming from her department.

One of those will be grief support groups starting at Longfellow Elementary. School officials asked her office if they could help in some way because there are 30 kids in kindergarten through third grade who have lost people in their lives, many due to COVID, Savage said.

They’re also piloting a program of student mental health mentors at Great Falls High and will select 40 students, with 10 from each grade level.

Savage said she’s been meeting with GFH principals and counselors to create the program in which the students will receive intensive training around recognizing anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and meet weekly with Savage to debrief and consult on cases.

“Kids talk to kids,” she said.

Through the program, her office will have services targeted to students identified through the program.

Savage said that administrators at Great Falls High and CMR High School came to her and said they needed anger management classes.

Savage said that instead of calling it anger management, they’re calling it self compassion and grief groups and focusing on addressing the underlying behaviors.

She said most students are angry because they’re fearful, disconnected or don’t have self-efficacy.

They’re putting together an 8-week class for identified students that will start in November, she said.

Savage said there are a number of factors causing students to feel sad or hopeless.

She said there’s poor mental health as it is, people are depressed about jobs, the economy, government turmoil, then COVID hit with more financial issues, insecurity, personal loss, all coupled with negative social media.

“There’s a lot of factors out there,” she said.

Savage said that parents are struggling and young people look to them, “so if you have stressed out, angry, anxious parents, you’re going to have a stressed out, angry anxious child.”