MSU police training

Montana State University police conducted a live-fire training Tuesday in the 11-story Roskie Hall dormitory.

The bullets weren’t real, but the need to know how to take down an armed gunman felt quite real Tuesday when Montana State University police conducted a live-fire training in the 11-story Roskie Hall dormitory.

A tattooed, bearded FBI officer was one of four training leaders. MSU police used simulated ammunition, like paintball ammo but smaller and shot at higher speeds by their regular duty weapons. It leaves a mark showing where the bullets would have hit, giving a greater sense of accuracy and realism.

“It hurts when it hits you,” said MSU Police Chief Frank Parrish.

The 21-officer MSU police force holds active-shooter training every year. This year’s training happened to occur days after two more deadly mass shootings in America — tragedies in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left more than 30 people dead and many wounded.

Police today train to go after armed shooters immediately, rather than waiting for backup, even if they’re alone, Parrish said. Their response changed dramatically after the Columbine High School shootings.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation to seek out the shooter quickly,” the chief said.

In El Paso and Dayton, officers responded quickly, he said, and “saved a great many lives. … This is why we need the training, the skills to respond quickly.”

The Dayton shooter was reported to have worn body armor and have 250 rounds of ammunition, making him extremely dangerous for law enforcement, Parrish said. News reports said he fired 41 shots and killed nine people in less than 30 seconds, before officers shot him.

MSU’s training includes eight hours of classroom discussion, going over different scenarios from past shootings, Parrish said.

As important as it is to train with guns, Parrish said even more important may be MSU’s efforts to identify and help troubled students or employees before violence happens.

“The best defense we have against active shooters is to prevent the shooter from getting to the point they feel they have nothing to lose,” Parrish said.

That’s why MSU has a robust behavior intervention team that meets weekly to discuss people of concern.

This summer the team was renamed CARES (for Campus Assessment Response Education and Support) to make it easier for people to remember and to contact, said Matt Caires, MSU dean of students. The team — including counselors, police, and residence hall staff — takes in information about people who might endanger themselves or others.

Student government leaders led an effort to create a new smartphone app called Safe Cats. With the push of a button, app users can call 911, or contact CARES.

In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 500 reports came in to the team, Caires said. Most were minor, about a student who was homesick or missing class, for example.

But about 5% were major, Caires said. Some 50 were talking about suicide and about 25 made suicide attempts.

“Nothing is scarier,” Caires said, than a student sitting in a car and smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol, when there’s a weapon in the car. “That’s a deadly combination.”

Asked about the argument from gun advocates who claim the answer to mass shootings is to let more people carry firearms, Caires said he believes the only people capable of using guns correctly in a crisis are trained law enforcement officers, not professors and residence hall assistants.

In response to concerns about troubled students, he said, MSU President Waded Cruzado approved hiring more counseling center counselors.

The university also spent about $300,000 to build a central weapon storage locker next to the campus police station on South Seventh Avenue. It’s free and open 24/7, Parrish said. MSU requires students to store all weapons there — firearms, bows and arrows, ammunition, handguns and even bear spray. Before, students would bring their weapons to their dorm’s main desk to be stored in a locked closet, which wasn’t the best solution.

“It’s working great,” Parrish said of the new weapon storage locker. “Students love it.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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