GFPS officials discuss school safety

The Great Falls Public Schools board held a work session on school safety on Sept. 29.

The board received the school resource officer report, student mental health report and an update on facility safety measure.

Capt. Rob Moccasin of the Great Falls Police Department said that the four SROs handled 432 incidents at schools during the 2021-2022 school year, down from 440 the previous year.

For elementary schools, during the 2021-2022 school year, there were 121 incidents, down from 190 the previous year.

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Moccasin said that they’d been seeing an increase in threats of violence and intimidation directed toward facilities and students.

Moccasin said they complete internal after action reviews of threat incidents, review best practices and lessons learned from local and national events throughout the year.

He told the board that SROs spend as much time as they can with students, mentoring and working to prevent incidents from escalating. He said that they were previously tracking hours for student interaction but that has proved difficult to accurately track.

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He told the the board that when necessary, SROs refer students to community and school services.

The SROs conducted 44 classroom presentations last school year, he said, on topics including cyber bullying, substance abuse and sexual assault awareness. They also produced an opioid safety awareness video for the district and community.

SROs also work with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, assist in the protocol for crisis intervention, engage in welfare checks for students and their parents/guardians, frequently review custody paperwork, assist the Internet Crimes Against Children program, work security at school related events and answer phone calls during non-duty hours to assist other GFPD members, the district or community, Moccasin said.

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“The SROs are the busiest detectives in our bureau,” he said and they provide a 24/7 response when needed to deal with any incident or reported threat investigation.

The GFPD and GFPS have partnered for 25 years for the SRO program.

In September, the City Commission approved the agreement for this school year for SROs. The city provides four officers to GFPS and the district pays the city $359,307.50 for the year.

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Under the agreement, the district covers 75 percent of the wages and associated equipment for the four SROs. The city pays the other $117,703 for the total cost of $470,810 to provide SRO services this fiscal year, according to the city staff report.

Moccasin said they could use another SRO as the workload is increasing, but that’s a budget issue to be decided by the police chief and city commission.

Andrea Savage, GFPS mental health coordinator, said that the district has seven therapists who saw 186 students last school year in a therapeutic capacity.

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Her team manages grief groups and mentoring programs at the high schools.

They also manage a crisis team that was activated three times during the last school year for a student death, a middle school student suicide and the CMR lockdown incident at the end of the year.

Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, and Tom Hering, IT director, walked the board through school safety improvements that have been made or are planned.

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Patrick said the district received a safety grant a few years ago which has been used to upgrade door security, outside alarm system, speed signs and the Raptor visitor management system.

Patrick said access to schools used to allow anyone to walk in, but that has changed in recent years.

Hering said the Raptor system is currently installed at eight elementary schools. It’s a kiosk for visitors, volunteers, staff and students to check in.

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The system requires a legal form of identification and compares that against the national database of sex offenders. He said it can be set to flag for unique circumstances such as court orders barring a person from a school.

Hering said the district has 1,089 cameras but likely needs more.

The current HikVision system was Chinese made and banned by the federal government several years ago so Hering said they’re working to replace the system.

The district received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for the replacement and the remaining $263,738 for the current project came out of the technology fund.

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He said the system upgrade has been completed at Paris Gibson Education Center, is about 80 percent complete at CMR and scheduled to be completed at Great Falls High and the middle schools by August 2023.

Replacing the camera systems in the elementary schools is an estimated $600,000 and Hering said they’re looking at using one-time ESSER, federal COVID relief funds, for the project.

Hering said that they’re also working to improve door access systems.

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Elementary schools and East Middle have only a buzz in front door that is monitored by staff. The rest of the doors are manually locked or unlocked and anything left open isn’t monitored.

The doors are Longfellow Elementary, which is new construction, lock and unlock on set schedules and staff have proximity cards for access. He said pin codes are available for emergency access. Doors that are left open aren’t monitored.

At Great Falls High, five primary doors have the set schedule for locking and unlocking but the others are manually locked and unlocked.

Those two schools had upgraded systems during construction.

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CMR, North Middle and the Early Learning Center have no door access controls, but the district has issued a contract to Total Education Solutions in Technology from Missoula for $192,755.60 for campus-wide door access systems using interlocal funds, Hering said.

That will include four types of door access, he said, to include a video intercom with full door access that staff can buzz people in, and scheduled lock and unlocking doors. Staff would also have proximity cards and some doors would always be locked and only also exiting from the interior only. Those doors would have sensors and alarms for their positioning, Hering said.

That project started Aug. 15 and is estimated to be complete Oct. 31.

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Superintendent Tom Moore also reviewed the results of an informal GFPS employee survey on school safety.

He said he received 566 responses, out of the 750 teachers and about 1,900 part-time employees in the district.

The questions allowed responses on a four point scale with one being the least agreeable with the question and four being the most.

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On the question of “how do you feel about overall school safety and security in the district,” the majority answered 3 and 4.

For “how do you feel about the effectiveness of limiting access to schools by locking doors and having visitors request entrance by buzzing in,” 370 answered 4 and 151 chose three.

On whether metal detectors should be installed in school  entryways, 53.6 percent said no.

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Asked how well they understand the district’s threat assessment protocols for students who pose a threat to themselves or others, Moore said there’s not a good understanding of it by staff.

He said the district as had an assessment protocol for about 14-15 years that was updated and improved about three years ago.

Asked how they felt about armed individuals in schools, other than SROs, the responses varied: 150 selected one on the four point scale, being in disagreement; 96 chose two; 134 chose three and 186 chose four, being in favor on the four point scale.

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Moore said that is a conversation being had in the community as Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has proposed a school safety program placing armed individuals in the school and funding it with a portion of the proposed county public safety levy.

Moore said about 56 percent of the respondents said it should be considered.

Slaughter attended the meeting and said that he plans to start in the rural schools on a smaller scale.

Moore said district officials are discussing the proposal with Slaughter and Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton, but that it would be difficult to implement on such a large scale in GFPS facilities.

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He said it makes sense for the schools that are further away from a law enforcement response and that they’ll watch how it works in the rural schools.

“At this point, I think it would be really difficult to roll out that initiative in the school district,” Moore said.

He said he didn’t want the school safety question to distract from other components of the county’s public safety levy.

Slaughter said that they’d implement the school safety program on a smaller scale since they’ll need to work through issues and vet the program.

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There’s “no way if the levy passes in November that we can just flip a switch and go that big with the program,” Slaughter said of implementing it in GFPS facilities.

Slaughter has proposed paying a stipend to the armed special service officers under his office, but County Commissioner Don Ryan spoke at the school board work session and said that he doesn’t want them to be county employees. He said that they’ve talked about a grant program to allocate funds to schools to pay a special service officer.

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Ryan said that if approved, the levy funds would come to the county commission who would decide how to spend it for public safety so it’s not send it stone how much would go to schools safety.