Libby levy vote part 4: Q&A

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Officials from Libby Public Schools and the Libby Police Department answered questions from members of the public about the proposed School resource officer, Wednesday, June 5, at the Libby City Hall.

Craig Barringer, Libby Public Schools superintendent, started off the meeting by reviewing the five-year grant offered by Flathead Electric Cooperative to help jumpstart a school resource officer program in the Libby district.

That offer from Flathead started the discussion on how to fund a resource officer, Barringer said. The schools and Libby Police began looking for a way to fund the program after the grant ended, without depending on other grants, which have run out in the past and forced the school to end previous resource officer programs.

Scott Kessel, Libby Police chief, reminded the audience that the goal of a resource officer is not to have an armed guard in the school, even though school protection is a part of the job.

The school resource officer is there to prevent violence from happening at the school primarily by engaging with students and building relationships that allow the officer to identify and remedy a situation before it turns violent.

The school resource officer would be funded by a levy covering only the Libby School District, and only operate within the Libby district.

In answer to a question regarding whether the department would hire only a combat veteran with experience under fire, Kessel responded, “Short answer, no.”

At least half of Libby’s officers — including Kessel — are combat veterans, he said. The training police officers receive is to go to the sound of gunfire and eliminate the threat.

Kessel also clarified that the $70,000 from the levy would cover more than just the salary. The actual annual salary of the officer would be around $37,640, with the rest of the sum going to cover equipment and benefits. Benefits alone will run about $21,500 annually, even before training and equipment.

Additionally, the officer would not just work when school is in session, he said. The officer would continue to build relationships and interact with students over breaks in the school schedule.

During the summer, the officer would also work some school functions and go to training, in addition to doing some patrol work with the department.

Barringer said that if the school and department decided to end the school resource officer program, the money from the levy would no longer be spent, which would end the levy.

When some in the audience expressed concern that a resource officer at one school would still take too long to respond to a different building, Kessel reiterated the importance of the preventative role of the officer.

Kessel said that technology now allows bullying and other issues from school to follow children home through the internet and cell phones.

“You look at social media, even among adults, and it’s a bullying platform in many ways,” he said. “These kids can’t escape it.”

Resource officers are trained to not only identify such a situation, but also how to engage and turn a bad situation into a positive outcome.

A resource officer — like all Libby Police — would also be trained in suicide prevention he said. However, a school resource officer will have additional training for handling such a situation with a student involved.

When asked why the school didn’t seek a grant with a set date when it would expire and have to be renewed, Kessel said that he wants to hire someone who is experienced and qualified. Someone like that isn’t going to take a job that could go away in a matter of a year or two.

Barringer noted that if the levy does not pass, the school will continue with other security improvements, most likely using the funding provided by the National Rifle Association’s National School Shield grant that the school received.

In response to arming teachers as an alternative, Kessel said teachers need to focus on the safety of students in their own classrooms, and would not be able to seek out or engage an attacker elsewhere in the school while doing that.

On June 18, residents in the Libby School District will vote for or against a levy to fund a school resource officer. In the next three issues, The Western News will present a series of articles taking a more in-depth look at what that means.

Residents with questions are encouraged to reach out to either Craig Barringer at 406-293-811 or barringerc@libbyschools.org, or to Scott Kessel at 406-293-3343 or s.kessel@libbypd.org.

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