Montana is a large state with a small population and that can be troublesome when it comes to providing emergency medical and mental health services. 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. Director Daniel Lee explains.

“We are going to work on developing a tele-mental health center to try to increase access to mental and behavioral health services for students across rural and frontier schools,” Lee said. “We will also work with schools to develop focus groups to try to establish what needs school districts across the state have in terms of training, safety audits, emergency operating plans, and trauma informed interventions. We will host a two-day school cybersecurity conference and a western state school safety conference next year at the University.”

They will start working on some of those projects in early December. Lee says they also plan to develop anonymous reporting technology for students, teachers and community members.

“We will try to develop very simple, but hopefully effective means to allow students who have some concerns about a few classmates who might be talking about doing harm to others, a way that they can notify law enforcement and the schools about their concerns,” Lee said. “We also want to help schools and law enforcement follow up in a measured way. How can we provide help to that individual and hopefully avert any crisis that might ensue?”

According to Lee, this is a lot like the see something, say something approach.

“We know that when these incidents have happened, often times, students at school had some concerns about the individual and didn’t report it to anyone, didn’t know how to report it, or didn’t feel comfortable reporting it,” Lee said. “This is particularly a problem in rural areas where everybody in a small community knows everyone else.”

Lee says they want kids to talk to their parents first and foremost, but they also want to provide as many avenues as possible for them to alert adults about concerns they might have.

Mental illness and substance use disorders are common and serious problems in Montana.

“Safety is a broad field encompassing many different components,” Lee said. “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.”

More information about the UM Montana Safe Schools Center can be found right here.

Photo Courtesy of Dan Lee