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Whitefish Citizen Group Proposes Safety Upgrades For Public Schools

Whitefish Middle School sign on a door.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
Whitefish Middle School.

One week after students across Montana walked out of class to advocate for safer schools, parents, teachers and school administrators in Whitefish are proposing safety upgrades to the district's public schools

The Whitefish School Board set up a citizens work group on safety and security last fall. Patty Johnson is a member.

"The social-emotional mental health and wellbeing of children is a really high priority for the district. Kids being safe and secure every single day in the way that they feel in their classrooms is what we really want for our schools," said Johnson. 

The citizens advisory group looked at schools' campus vulnerabilities, upgrading cyber security and ways to support students' emotional and mental health. It also looked at school-community relations. 

Tuesday night, the group presented their recommendations to the board and a dozen parents at Whitefish Middle School.

Members emphasized that school safety means far more than protecting students from isolated catastrophes. 

Recommendations include continued partnerships with community mental health providers, incorporating a social-emotional learning curriculum and digital citizenship programs for grades K-12. 

Whitefish's school district is already working on a suicide task force.

Whitefish Chief of Police Bill Dial was not on the Work Group, but captured the underlying message of the group's recommendations. 

"We need to come together and we need to make sure that any time there is anything that doesn't look right, you gotta tell us. You tell the administrator. The administrator's got to tell us. And that is the only way we are going to keep our schools safe," said Dial. 

The Whitefish Police Department currently has one School Resource Officer who splits time between the town's three schools. The work group recommended the Whitefish School Board continue that program and explore the role and extent of visible law enforcement on school campuses. 

The work group also recommended upgrading physical security measures, like installing video cameras, mirrors and panic buttons for front office staff. It says schools should consider a separate entrance for school visitors, and install locks that can section off parts of school buildings for after-hour events or emergencies. 

Arming teachers or safety volunteers didn't come up during the Work Group's five planning meetings nor at Tuesday's hour-and-a-half long presentation and following Q&A. 

School Superintendent Heather Davis-Schmidt suggested moving forward, the Work Group present their recommendations as a continuous improvement plan for the Board of Trustees to approve. 

"But knowing that it's a living document, there's no way that we can implement all of the suggestions tomorrow. At the same time, many of the things that are in here are already in place and in process," Davis-Schmidt said.

The Board did not take immediate action on the recommendations.

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