MISSOULA – Montana is best known for its towering mountains and miles of open space, and its rural nature is the reason many people choose to live, work and play in the state.
However, the reality for many rural communities and schools in Montana is that emergency medical services, law enforcement personnel and mental health services are limited or nonexistent because of the state’s vast size and small population. The sparse nature of the state makes the lack of access to services a barrier to preventing and responding to violence and ensuring school safety.
Now, thanks to a $1 million U.S. Department of Justice grant, the University of Montana Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and its Safe Schools Center will lead a statewide effort to improve school safety.
The grant, awarded under the STOP School Violence Technology and Threat Assessment Solutions for Safer Schools Program, will provide the UM center the ability to work collaboratively with schools across the state to improve safety for all students.
Montana Public Schools Systems are numerous, totaling 406 separate operating districts, which includes 12 Native American tribal nations. This means collaboration, coordination and consistency across the state on school safety issues are challenging. Additionally, mental illness and substance use disorders are common and serious problems in Montana.
“Safety is a broad field encompassing many different components,” said Dr. Dan Lee, director of UMSCC. “It is a complex, multidimensional issue. It’s a field that is growing in notoriety and needs to be approached with a dynamic set of solutions. This grant allows aspiring education professionals to be actively engaged in developing safety solutions for rural communities and generates cross-sectional collaborations.”
School safety is not just one school’s concern – it has an undeniable impact on everyone in the surrounding communities. UMSSC is dedicated to providing leadership and guidance on trauma-informed practices that will improve the lives of many, Lee said. The center is active in interdisciplinary research and maintains a presence in the national dialog about trauma and children. It has collaborative relationships throughout the state that will be the foundation to improving school safety.
Over the next three years, UMSSC plans to collaborate with doctoral students in the Department of Counseling at the UM education college to establish a tele-mental health center that will help serve the needs of children in rural communities throughout Montana. UMSSC plans to assist in the development and deployment of low-cost, anonymous reporting technology for students, teachers and community members to report concerning behaviors or activities.
The center also intends to conduct statewide school safety focus groups to more fully determine current understanding of critical incident response training in schools, as well as host a two-day school safety conference on campus. Finally, it will partner with the National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense at Missoula College, under the direction of Dr. Thomas Gallagher, to host a two-day school cybersecurity conference next year.
For more information on UMSSC, visit http://coehs.umt.edu/specunits/montana_safe_schools_center/.