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Audit of Billings School District 2 highlights major safety recommendations

Check-in sign at a Billings elementary school
Posted at 5:36 PM, Dec 21, 2023

BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 is making some changes to safety following an audit done on the schools that highlighted areas of improvement.

In the wake of an uptick in violent crime and a rise in gang activity in Billings, the district decided to bring in professionals to help determine what could be done better to ensure the safety of staff and students.

"We’ve got gang activity happening from the middle schools all the way on up,” said Joe Halligan, the district's safety and emergency management coordinator. "That’s no secret to our community."

Joe Halligan
Joe Halligan

Many recommendations were made for improvements in the audit.

"Every single building would somehow be impacted for the good with this particular project,” Halligan said. "The hope is that we can really just come into the 21st Century and just be aligned with other schools around the country."

All 37 district facilities had recommendations made for change, including gang prevention programs. GREAT, which stands for Gang Resistance Education And Training, is just the start.

"One of those programs we are exploring is called GREAT. It’s a nationally recognized research-based program that we are bringing to our system,” said Erwin Garcia, the superintendent of the district. "We don’t have that currently. To do something like that we will need the resources."

Check-in sign at a Billings elementary school
Check-in sign at a Billings elementary school

Some of the other recommendations include upgrades to surveillance and intercom systems.

"We’re pretty far behind when it comes to the technological capacities of our schools," Halligan said. "Particularly surrounding surveillance cameras, PA systems, just internal communications within the school. Just the ability for our teachers and administrators to be able to communicate with one another."

Halligan recently started his new position after retiring from a career as a principal.

"There's a lot of work to be done," he said. "There wasn’t one school that escaped (the audit) without some sort of safety need, some sort of improvement."

Students in class
Students in class

He’ll work closely with staff, assisting in training and preparation.

"The hope of my role is just to perhaps take some of those things off of their plates when it comes to the safety and security procedures and protocols," Halligan said. "I'm meeting with school safety teams, we’re talking about radio protocols."

But improvements in surveillance won’t be cheap.

"Just to update an entire system for campuses that don’t even have cameras, and for campuses that have cameras but they’re very outdated, the cost is about $19 million," Garcia said. "We don’t have to invest $19 million, but we can get a $5 million package where we can renew all of our systems, ensure that every single building has a camera system, and be more sensitive to the public.”

Erwin Garcia
Erwin Garcia

The district will be asking voters to approve a mill levy in May of about $3 million for the Elementary District and about $3 million for the High School District, a school official said.

"I don’t want to bring something to the taxpayers that is going to overwhelm them. I am going to try to look for efficiencies," Garcia said. "But at the same time, we have to ask."

Heavy on the wallet but crucial for the future.

"We’re going back to the public to say, 'Look, we have to address these issues. If we don’t address them now, we’re going to pay the price,'” Garcia said. "Our goal is to present that information in this upcoming semester so the public can support us as we run a safety levy in the month of May. For the most part, I’ve seen people talk to members of our community, and they’re very receptive. Some people, of course, they look at their pockets and it’s hard to really argue that. I mean, difficult times. But the cost of not addressing these problems now is way too expensive if we think about the future."

To learn more about recent safety changes in SD2, click here.

(Editor note: The cost of the mill levy in May as initially reported was edited after the school district sent Q2 updated information.)