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Arlee bolsters school safety, communication in wake of gun incident

ARLEE – At the first regular Arlee School Board meeting since a student brought a BB gun to school in a backpack, trustees took a series of actions concerning school safety. 

An estimated 50 parents, community members and students attended the meeting. 

While the Oct. 31 incident was the topic of an executive session at the meeting, it was not explicitly addressed with the public.

Instead, trustees implemented a number of changes related to the Bureau of Justice Assistance STOP School Violence Threat Assessment and Technology Reporting Program. The program awarded the school a grant this fall. The grant will fund the “Keep Arlee Schools Safe” project and provide about $150,000 in funds over three years to bolster emergency response plans, school security and mental healthcare in Arlee schools. 

Superintendent James Baldwin said the grant will prepare the district to respond to a situation like the Oct. 31 gun incident.

Anna Baldwin, school district grants manager and high school English teacher, applied for the STOP grant last summer. She said in Arlee the greatest school safety need was student mental health. “We’ve been on the edge of a suicide cluster for the last two years,” she said. 

According to the budget narrative for the grant, about five percent of the junior and senior high students in the Arlee School District were hospitalized for suicide threats during the 2017-2018 school year. Despite the prevalence of mental illness, Arlee School District does not have mental health counselors on staff. The bulk of the grant funds, $35,000 annually, will be used to employ a mental health counselor. Anna said she hoped the counselor would provide mental health care to vulnerable students.

“We will have someone who can help them find stability and equilibrium for themselves and our district,” Anna said.

At the meeting, trustees unanimously approved the job description for the position, which states that the counselor will “focus on mental health, (including) individual and group counseling and suicide prevention.” The district is currently accepting applications for the position.

The grant also provided funds for the development of a Crisis Intervention Team. The team will be comprised of community members, local emergency responders, law enforcement officers and school staff. The group will work to develop emergency response protocols and implement staff training to increase the district’s emergency preparedness. 

In the wake of the gun incident, the central complaint from the school community was a lack of communication about the event. Rebecca Wiley, whose grandchildren attend school in Arlee, said she found out about the event on Facebook. Students Saige Koetter and Mia Arlee said they heard from other students during class. 

Anne Tanner, head of the crisis intervention team and K-2 principal, said that she and her committee had taken action to improve communication in incidents like the one on Oct. 31. “We’re going to let you know any time there’s anything,” she said. The school added a new message option to their automatic phone call menu. The robocall is already used to make all-district announcements. The new message will read, “This is Arlee Public Schools. We had a situation at school. All children are safe and will resume school as normal. Do not call the school as phone lines must be open for emergency access. Further information is forthcoming.”

Tanner said the call would be used when anything happened that might give rise to parent concern or confusion. The safety team will also use the school’s Facebook page to communicate with families about safety concerns in the schools.

Anna said that in the past it had been difficult for the school’s safety team to develop effective emergency response plans.

“We have people who serve on the safety committee but they’re teachers and administrators, not safety experts,” she said. The new Crisis Intervention Team includes first responders, police officers, community members, and school staff. Tanner said she is still seeking a community member to join the team. Meetings will be open to the public and announced on the school’s website.

Anna said the Oct. 31 incident highlighted the need for updated emergency procedures. “It exposed weakness in our plan,” she said. “I’m glad that we had already taken steps to address those weaknesses prior to the incident.”

The STOP grant will provide funds to improve safety features and the school’s emergency response plan. Safety consultants will inspect all school buildings and recommend improvements that would improve outcomes in a mass crisis. The grant will also fund improvements to school safety infrastructure.

At the meeting, the board unanimously approved funding the cost of the consultants’ inspection and the installation of school security features by Mission Valley Security.

Stephen Rothschild has been involved in the Arlee School District as a part-time employee and a substitute teacher. He said he felt that the response from the board to focus on improving safety and emergency response was a move in the right direction. 

“It’s nice that they’re talking about mental health,” he said. “They need to address these things and help the students.”

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