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Like Columbine before it, the incident prompted pundits, school administrators and parents to ask an impossible question: Are schools safe enough?
In Apostle's mind, having to ask was an answer in itself. "Truly, there's only one thing that matters to me. I want to make sure that our students and our staff are safe and secure, and that we have action plans to react to whatever may happen," he says. "My nightmare is to not be prepared."
Days after the shooting at Sandy Hook, Apostle announced his intention to form the Community Task Force on Safety and Security. The effort would consist of three committees: facilities safety and design, public safety and mental health services. (Facilities and public safety have since consolidated to one committee).
It didn't take long for the committees to effect change. Last year, based on committee recommendations, MCPS's phone system was updated to allow 911 dispatchers to more easily trace emergency calls, and the district is enforcing a more stringent identification process for school staff and visitors.
The most radical addition, though, comes in the form of active resistance training for MCPS staff. The training is based on a course designed by the Safariland Training Group, a private company that specializes in tactical and patrol training for law enforcement. The mission of the course is to give trainees the tools to make life-saving decisions in critical situations. The course lasts for eight hours, and covers everything from how to improvise a weapon with a fire extinguisher to how to barricade a door with a rope and a 2x4 to how to treat a sucking chest wound.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- The Safe School Initiative, launched in 1999 by the Secret Service, analyzed the actions of 41 perpetrators of “targeted school violence.” The study found most incidents were “sudden, impulsive acts” and that “there is no accurate or useful ‘profile’” of students who carried them out.
So far, two sessions have been offered at Missoula schools, and the district hopes to offer at least one every month. But there are hurdles. A maximum of 50 people can be trained at a time, and trainings require a completely empty school building, which means they are only offered on weekends, outside of regular working hours. Right now, certified staff are compensated with credit hours toward their requisite professional development, while other staff are compensated with flexible work schedules. There is also the issue of staff attrition, new hirings and the fact that, in order for the training to be truly meaningful, staff will likely need to be trained and re-trained.
Apostle acknowledges the hurdles, but he feels they are worth jumping over. "I think that if we weren't trying to train our teachers, that would be worse ... We're trying the very best we can to prepare them for any situation that may come about. It's not 100-percent guaranteed to protect every student or to protect themselves," he says. "But right now we haven't done anything in terms of that issue. We're trying."
In May 1988, Kristofor Hans pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide, attempted deliberate homicide and two counts of felony assault. The issue at the center of his sentencing hearing was to what degree Kris could be held accountable for his actions. The state sought to prove Kris acted knowingly, while the defense looked to show that there existed mitigating mental health problems, which were exacerbated by the demands of his father.
On the second day of the June sentencing hearing, the state called John Van Hassel, a clinical psychologist at Montana State Hospital, who had evaluated Kris. He diagnosed Kris with schizotypal personality disorder as well as conduct disorder, which Van Hassel told the court was characterized by "behavior that's discrepant with community standards."
"Kris expressed to us a philosophy that he had been born in the wrong time," he said. "That he did not fit into society."
As to the role the contingencies of his father's contract may have played in Kris' actions, Van Hassel was unconvinced. "I think [Kris] would say he felt they were unreasonable. That doesn't necessarily mean, in an objective sense, that they were unreasonable ...," he said. "[W]e can say almost everything that occurred in Kris' life up to the shooting was a precipitant."
After Van Hassel, the state called Dean Smith, a psychiatrist at Montana State Hospital. He concurred with Van Hassel on his diagnosis of Kris and the role of the contract. Smith also added, however, that the circumstances from which the contract was born took a toll on Kris. "I also am concerned whenever someone, a young person, is placed in the position of either having to decide who his custodial parent will be or have to earn the right to have a certain parent as his custodial parent," he said.
In the end, of the 17 witnesses who testified at the hearing—including Henrietta Smith's husband, John Moffatt and Moffatt's wife, Maggie—only two were called by the defense. Eventually, Kris would be handed two 100-year sentences, and he would be designated a dangerous offender when it came to parole eligibility. No one in Fergus County had ever been sentenced to so many years in incarceration.
At the end of the second day of the hearing, the defense called the final two witnesses to the stand. The first was Ned Tranel, a psychologist at the Children's Clinic in Billings. He'd interviewed Kris, and traveled to Casper, Wyo., to interview Kris' father. He agreed with the other doctors that Kris suffered from mental and behavioral disorders. He had a different view, however, on the ramifications of the contract:
"My understanding of the data and the messages I received from all the people that I talked to, indicated to me the contract symbolized a circumstance which, while in itself not unrealistic and unattainable or unachievable by Kris, to him said that there is one more point at which love from his parents is conditional. You may remain with your mother if. Or you may remain with your father if. Depriving a child of unconditional love is tantamount to withholding one of the essential ingredients of sanity, of mental health. No one can survive sanely without unconditional love. And to tell a child—and that's one of the things this document said was, 'we love you if you behave according to a certain way, according to certain standards'. If I say to my children, 'I love you if,' that's devastating to their mental health."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle says he felt he had to take certain steps after the Sandy Hook shootings. “I want to make sure that our students and our staff are safe and secure, and that we have action plans to react to whatever may happen,” he says. “My nightmare is to not be prepared.”
Terri Hardy was the final witness to take the stand. Her testimony reiterated the terms of her ex-husband's contract and the abuse her son endured as a small boy. "[Kris] told me just yesterday," she testified, "he's sorry about the first time he ever cried."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a man wearing a padded suit marched down a hallway in Lewis and Clark Elementary School. He carried a rubber replica of a shotgun. Behind him, another man held a .38 revolver loaded with blanks. When the second man pulled the trigger, the sound seemed to push against the walls of the school and smoke rose to the ceiling.
In one classroom, a group of 12 MCPS teachers and staff scrambled at the sound of the first shot. One of them tried to close the outward opening door, but didn't want to expose herself in the hallway, which she had been trained to avoid. Instead, several other women turned a table on its end, and pushed it against the door frame. They moved a filing cabinet behind the upturned table, and a woman lay with her feet propped against it. Another woman lay behind her, and another behind her, until the chain of women reached the opposite side of the room, like a doorstop made of bodies.
When an air horn announced the end of the scenario, the man in the padded suit popped his head around the table, and complimented the women on their tactics.