Bozeman’s public schools are more open to the public – and potentially more vulnerable — than the elementary school in Connecticut where the killing of 20 children shocked the nation.
Bozeman Superintendent Rob Watson said Monday that as more is learned about the school shootings in Connecticut, school officials here may decide to alter safety procedures.
Finding the right balance between security and openness, he said, is an issue that will have to be discussed with law enforcement and the larger Bozeman community.
“There’s a balance there,” Watson said. “We do want our schools to be welcoming to the community.
“We want to reassure folks these are things we’re thinking about,” Watson said. “Statistically speaking, our schools are some of the safest places to be.”
At the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., the entrance was locked every morning right after recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, and visitors had to be let in by someone pushing a buzzer, the school nurse told “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Yet even that precaution was defeated Friday morning when a young gunman shot his way through windows to enter the building.
In Bozeman’s elementary schools, front doors aren’t locked. All visitors are supposed to check in right away with the school’s main office, which is near the entry in the newer schools and down the hall in older buildings.
Bozeman High School is even more open, and many doors are flanked by glass walls. Some doors to the outside are locked during the day, but many doors stay unlocked. Those include the front entry doors, the doors to the Bridger wing, doors near the gyms and doors to the oval drive and student parking lot.
“Students have to move between buildings” to get to class, Watson said. It would be very difficult with students of that age and in that sprawling building to require all doors to be locked and have buzzers, he said.
Last week, when a suspicious man holding what looked like a gun case was spotted loitering near the high school, the school went into lockdown and exterior doors were locked while police searched for the man.
The high school has an open campus policy that lets students come and go during the lunch hour. If that privilege were curtailed in the name of greater security, many students would be upset.
Access to elementary schools is more limited, Watson said, “but we do not have buzzers. I’m not saying we’d never do that. As we learn more from Connecticut, we may change procedures and processes.”
Watson said school administrators met Sunday night with principals and law enforcement officers, and discussed how to talk about the Connecticut crime with staffs and students.
The schools help students who are struggling emotionally, he said, by working with mental health professionals.
To lessen the chances that kids will feel like loners, the schools create new clubs and activities to accommodate lots of interests, Watson said.
The district’s new Olweus anti-bullying program also teaches that one form of bullying is isolating the targeted student, he said. The Olweus program encourages all students to “make everybody feel welcome.”
“I think at the present time we have a good balance” between safety and access, said School Board Chair Gary Lusin. “I think our processes and procedures are solid. I don’t think there’s any firm way to prevent something like that from happening.”
Longtime Trustee Denise Hayman said it’s important not to rush into changes.
“We recognize and honor that our parents want access to our schools,” Hayman said. “We invite community participation in our school programs.
“Parents are very saddened by (what happened in Connecticut). I don’t think there are words adequate to describe what people are feeling.”
A handful of Bozeman High students, interviewed after they left school Monday, found few calling for security changes.
“It’s pretty safe,” Riley Cey, a sophomore, said. The high school’s openness could allow someone to bring in contraband, she said, but most students don’t abuse their privilege because “our freedoms would be taken away.”
Thomas Morris, a freshman, said he likes the school the way it is. “Bozeman’s a quiet and safe place,” he said.
Freshman Jake Miller, however, said he thinks some doors should be more guarded. “So many people can walk in.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.