When the superintendent of Pillager School District first arrived roughly two years ago, he was surprised by the lack of security measures in the district's two school buildings.
This, Superintendent Mike Malmberg said, was the result of his background in the Twin Cities metro area. Rural schools are more likely to lag behind urban institutions when security is concerned, he added, and it's been part of his mission the last two years to rectify that.
These concerns were heightened with another deadly school shooting Wednesday that claimed 17 lives in a matter of minutes-a killing spree, allegedly orchestrated by a 19-year-old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Even closer to home, parents of the Pine-River Backus School District were privy to an alert from Superintendent Dave Endicott Thursday evening-indication of a false alarm, though still troubling in light of Wednesday's events.
"This afternoon administration was made aware of possible comments by a student or students that involved the safety of our students," Endicott's alert stated. "An investigation began immediately involving police and administration. It was determined there was no viable threat."
The Dispatch contacted Pine-River Backus Principal Chris Halverson and Superintendent Dave Endicott, but neither returned these calls immediately.
Since Malmberg's arrival, the Pillager School District implemented a number of measures to beef up security: securing all entrances, hiring a liaison security officer, as well as practicing and revising a crisis plan every year with outside consultation. Staff now have key access to every portion of the facilities, irrespective of their capacities, to provide an expedient means of escape.
"It's definitely been something on the forefront," Malmberg said. "It's not just something popping up now, it's something that's constantly ongoing at our district."
Brainerd School District Superintendent Laine Larson said similar measures were implemented in the Brainerd School District-though, she said, with 12 separate facilities of varying uses, ages and layouts, the safety measures in place also vary from building to building.
During the referendum process, she noted making these safety features uniform across the district as a primary concern regarding the renovation and construction projects proposed in this year's referendum. Safety concerns regarding threats to the faculty and student body, she added, are intrinsically part of that as well.
"It's all interrelated that we're just looking for overall safety in our district for our students, our staff and all our guests who come to our schools and facilities," Larson said.
Notable is the advent of ALICE training, or alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate-representative of a more proactive, escape-oriented strategy than traditional hide-and-barricade methods used in the past. Malmberg said the plan is to have the entire Pillager staff trained by the beginning of next school year. Larson noted educators at Brainerd School District were already trained in ALICE techniques when she arrived a year ago.
Malmberg said determining whether a threat is viable is largely dependent on outside law enforcement and based, in large part, on identifying a pattern of intent versus misinterpreting an isolated incident or outburst.
In the case of an imminent threat, both Malmberg and Larson said district officials err on the side of caution-if there is any potential for harm to students or faculty, it necessitates a lockdown and rapid response.
"Any kind of a situation were we get wind-if there's a call or if we get a note, or anything like that where there is a threat -we take it seriously immediately," Larson said. "If we need to go into lockdown, we will go into lockdown."
While there are crisis protocols in place, every case is different and it's difficult to say beforehand what constitutes a viable threat.
"It's hard. Where do you draw the line?" Malmberg said. "But, you do everything you can, from suspension, depending on the situation, to actions by law enforcement."
There are also varying levels of lockdown, Larson noted-a "soft" lockdown during which students are restricted from leaving the building, or a "hard" lockdown when rooms are locked and students are hidden and quarantined.
Different threats require a different response. A bomb threat, for example, would mean evacuating the students from the area as quickly as possible. The same cannot be necessarily said if it were an active shooter situation.
In terms of combating violent outbursts by students-incidences both significant and largely inconsequential-Larson said educators are trying to pre-emptively deter these tragedies with social measures.
"We take all kinds of measures to prevent it, to listen to kids and to give them attention," Larson said. "Different strategies for prevention, helping kids work together such as behavior management, conflict resolution-our staff is trained in that and they take it very seriously."
Larson-a 35-year veteran of public education as a teacher, principal and superintendent-said she feels the frequency and scale of school shootings is escalating, symptomatic of a nation's failure to address mental health issues and social ills.
Malmberg echoed this sentiment and added, instead of propping up mental health services, that often governing bodies are doing quite the opposite and scaling back these resources.
"I think society as a whole," Malmberg said, "we have not done a very good job of keeping up with mental health issues-whether it's a student, a family member or a society."