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Fight Or Die: Documentary Examines Active Shooter Preparedness On Montana Campuses

An unsettling but important training session was recently held in Missoula. Participants were confronted with an immediate crisis: what would they do if someone walked into their workplace or classroom, pulled out a firearm, and opened fire?

According to one professional active resistance instructor featured in a new MontanaPBS documentary which premieres this evening, the options are limited:

"The options are fight or die. Dying, to me, is not an option.” 

MontanaPBS producer Beth Saboe’s documentary, “Active Shooter: Are Montana Colleges Ready?” is a half-hour look into how four Montana colleges are preparing for a shooting incident:

"Montana is certainly not immune to this type of incident. We in fact, have had a shooting in 1990 on Montana State University’s campus. A gunman stormed into a dorm room and killed two other male students.” 

Last fall, MSU officials assessed MontanaPBS’s Bozeman studios to find out how prepared Saboe and her co-workers were in the event of a worst-case shooting scenario:

"I just got me thinking, 'Wow…I wonder what else the university is doing, what police departments are doing and then what other campuses across the state are doing to start this dialog and to have this discussion with people who work and live on campus.’” 

In addition to Montana State, Saboe profiles the University of Montana in Missoula, the private Rocky Mountain College in Billings, and Miles City’s Miles Community College.

She says all four institutions liked her idea and welcomed her cameras to their campuses.

Saboe says UM’s active resistance training program seems to be the most cutting edge of the bunch. Faculty, staff and students are invited to informal training sessions on the “Run, Fight and Hide” training model, developed by the U.S Department of Homeland Security. They can also participate in a more intense session complete with blank gunshots and professional mock intruders

Trainees practice using unconventional weapons in defense during an active shooter demonstration.
Credit Beth Saboe
Trainees practice using unconventional weapons in defense during an active shooter demonstration.

"That’s a whole different ballgame. These teachers and faculty are sitting in the classroom or milling about in a hallway and get lulled into sense of security and then suddenly they (instructors) start shooting. They’re blanks, but it all sounds the same.” 

The trainees then try to use the skills they’ve just been taught:

"Can they run? Can they escape? Are they in a room? Do they need to barricade? What if that shooter opens the door and comes in? That’s where they learn how to fight. It was incredibly eye-opening and pretty shocking too. It made me change how I look at campus.” 

Saboe says Montana State isn’t yet offering that kind of immersive training session, but is offering 2-hour programs featuring law enforcement officers and professional videos. The goal is to make faculty, staff and students more aware of their surroundings, possible escape routes – or, if need be, how they could use everyday objects as improvised weapons against a gunman.

Rocky Mountain College and Miles Community College are currently focused on faculty and staff training. Students aren’t yet involved.

Saboe says she’s not qualified to determine if that lack of student involvement puts those schools at a safety disadvantage:

"Everyone I talked to at both Rocky and MCC – actually officials at every campus said – ‘We feel safe here.’ I think the disadvantage the smaller schools are at is that they simply don’t have the resources or the staff to implement the same level of training.”

But Saboe notes those smaller schools are ramping up their active resistance training programs.

Shooter response training programs are an odd sign of the times, but Saboe points out it’s something universities can no longer ignore.

"That was a question I actually posed to the UM police chief and the MSU police chief. They’re both veteran law enforcement officers. I said, ‘In all of your time did you ever think that this would become such a high priority?’ I think they’re so used to it that they said, ‘We never anticipated it, but now it’s part of the grim reality.'"

“Active Shooter: Are Montana Colleges Ready?” premieres tonight at 8:00 on MontanaPBS. It replays at 7:30 Thursday night and again at 4:30 Sunday afternoon.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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