Proceed With Caution 

What do we really need to make Missoula schools safe?

Last May, with images of the Columbine High School massacre still fresh in mind, a group of concerned Missoula students, parents, teachers, and school administrators got together to discuss ways of making our schools safer.

The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate. In Missoula, students were complaining about the alarming frequency of bomb threats that were disrupting their school day. Just days before the Littleton shootings, the Montana Legislature considered a bill to require all schools to identify safety hazards, design appropriate response drills and adopt emergency management plans. That bill, opposed by a lobbyist for the state’s public schools (arguing that it would cost too much money), was killed in committee.

The day after Columbine, a student at Sentinel High School stood up in social studies class and said that he understood the frustration of the Littleton shooters and felt the same way.

The responses to Columbine, both here and nationwide, have been rapid, energetic and multi-faceted. In Missoula, it has served as the impetus for a number of anti-violence and safety efforts, among them a fundraising campaign called the “School Safety Wish List,” to fund corrective actions and safety equipment for every classroom in Missoula.

“We’re trying to do something positive because of some safety issues in the schools that weren’t being met,” says Susan Reneau, a mother of three who is spearheading this campaign. “I asked teenagers for some ideas, and then other parents ... and there were a lot of comments made about things that were happening that were disturbing. And we decided that we needed to do something positive.”

The school safety wish list includes many common-sense suggestions, such as repairing broken windows and doors, restricting the number of access points into school buildings and installing padlocks on vacant lockers to prevent vandalism. Other suggestions include regular police patrols through the schools, setting up creative after-school programs and closing high school campuses during lunch.

The wish list group is also pursuing funding to install telephones in all high school classrooms and provide two-way radios for additional communication. According to Reneau, there is also talk of providing classrooms with cellular phones that could be used only in the event of emergencies.

With such a large head of steam building behind this campaign, I’m reluctant to voice even a modicum of criticism, for fear of either discouraging the effort or dissuading people from contributing to an otherwise worthwhile cause. However, there are several items on the wish list that deserve closer scrutiny.

Among them are the so-called “school safety buckets” to be placed in every classroom, that would include some or all of the following items: bandages, gauze, rubber tubing for tourniquets, a 20-foot length of rope to allow exit from a second-floor classroom, flashlights, candy bars for low blood sugar, latex gloves, and so on.

Undoubtedly, some of these items were suggested in response to the television images of the bloody Columbine student who was forced to bail out of a second-story window into the arms of rescuers. However, providing students with items like tourniquets and escape ropes raises obvious red flags among local emergency planners.

“I see it as more of a risk than help,” says Wayne Van Meter who manages disaster services for the Western Valleys Chapter of the American Red Cross. Without proper training, says Van Meter, “Children don’t know how to get down a rope. A rope ladder, yes. ... It doesn’t sound like an effective way to spend time, energy and money.”

Van Meter points out that including bandages and tourniquets in a safety bucket won’t do students much good unless they’re trained in their use. A tourniquet is used only under extreme circumstances, and when used improperly, can cause more harm than good.

Likewise, any rescue climber or firefighter will attest to the high cost of climbing ropes and descending gear. Instead, the American Red Cross suggests other lower-cost efforts that can earn you more bang for your buck, such as training students, teachers and administrators in first aid, CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and other skills for helping a diabetic, a person in seizure or someone who has lost consciousness. Such situations are far more likely to occur in a classroom than an injury requiring a tourniquet or a rescue rope.

Missoula County Public Schools, which currently start students on basic first aid in the eighth grade, might also consider certifying its teachers and administrators in first aid and CPR, which is not a state requirement. Imagine how much more practical it would be if every senior graduating from a Missoula high school were CPR- or even first-responder-certified. Missoula could then boast of being the first school district in the state (if not the nation) to achieve that impressive goal.

Again, I should reiterate my support for this campaign as a whole, but at the same time encourage those participating in it to seek out the expertise of the many trained professionals in our community who do emergency planning, response and education for a living. It’s pointless to hand students a rope without teaching them how to tie a knot. After all, our goal is not just to make students feel safe. Our goal is to make students be safe.

Contributions to the School Safety Wish List can be made at any local branch of First Security Bank. For more information, call 251-3372.

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