A report of a possible gun threat at Billings Senior High School Tuesday put the school on lockdown and drew a massive police response, which highlighted challenges in communication and resources.
This is the second school incident in Montana in two weeks that ended with no one harmed.
Soon after the lockdown started a quarter past noon, Billings Senior High School parents received a robocall alerting them to a possible weapon on the campus.
Some parents parked outside the school to wait, like Tasha Whiteblum, who said her teenage children had been texting her.
“They’re in their classrooms and they’re safe. They haven’t heard any gunshots or anything, so they’re safe. Just concerned,” Whiteblum said.
The lockdown lasted for more than an hour and ended with two juveniles and their two airsoft pistols in police custody. Airsoft pistols can look like guns, but their plastic projectiles are rarely fatal.
And while it was a false alarm, the initial report put the school district, police and families on high alert.
One worried mother, Katrina Lowrey, waited across the street with a handful of other parents texting their kids.
“Where I’m from, it’s not a joke, it’s not a game. Every time you get a call, it’s a lockdown, it’s serious,” Lowrey said.
Lowrey and the other moms were checking their phones and any information, even incorrect information, spreads quickly when parents are scared.
"Oh my God," a mother said after recieving a text from her daughter. "It's a kid with an AK-47 in there." Word spread quickly among nearby moms, along with gasps and exclamations.
There was no AK-47, but these parents easily imagined the worst case scenario.
As they waited for news, police were two miles away over the railroad tracks on Billings’ southside. That’s where law enforcement eventually located the two suspects.
At a press conference later in the day, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John could not confirm if the two suspects were ever headed to or were inside the high school, which is what a school resource officer originally reported that initiated the school lockdown.
“Shortly thereafter, there was information that those individuals were in fact in Pioneer Park, which diverted our resources over there,” St. John said.
He said, following that, police officers returned to the school when a staff member claimed to see a male juvenile with what he believed to be a handgun.
Law enforcement at one point detained a young man who matched the description of one of the suspects, but he was later released. Eventually, police received information that led them to the southside of Billings.
St. John said he believed two Senior High students were driving to one of the student’s homes. He said one of the suspects was in touch with his mom, which helped BPD track them down.
According to St. John, they apprehended two young men in a car on Monroe St.
St. John said communication between teachers, school administration and officers was good, and 30-some local, state and federal officers searched the school twice.
Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham said he was in contact with his staff, police, parents, media and other administrators.
“The best thing right now is no one was hurt. That’s absolutely the win," Upham said.
The school followed a revised class schedule and a normal dismissal time after the lockdown ended at 2 P.M.
Upham said the school called in counselors in case students and staff needed support.
"We’ll learn from it. I’m sure we’ll learn that there were communication pieces that went well and others that may not have. As far as training goes, we’ll do a full debrief with the police department and the entire district. And communication is the challenge with this, so we’ll work to grow from that," Upham said.
St. John agreed communication can be a challenge.
He said police were operating off their main radio channel, which ties it up for other calls.
"If you were listening to your scanner between then and now you would have heard call after call going out. Those were all calls that were being held. So essentially we had no or very few officers left to take care of the rest of the issues with the city. Now, the afternoon shift was called in early," St. John said.
He said, overall, the different agencies coordinated and communicated well, which showed him that training is paying off. He also said that BPD would hold a debrief to pinpoint areas of improvement.
The status of the two suspects is so far unclear.
St. John said he did not know if they would be charged or if they even did anything illegal, and it may be left up to the school administration.