Some Whitefish High School students kicked off their day last week with a quick chat with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock held a 30-minute virtual town hall with students from the high school’s history and AP government classes to talk net neutrality and answer student’s questions.
The final questions of the session turned to the recent protests across the country driven by gun violence and the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have taken the lead on marching and protesting for sensible gun regulations across the nation, and students in Whitefish two weeks ago participated in two separate events — a walkout and a commemoration ceremony held at Whitefish High for the victims of the shooting.
Senior Grace Scrafford reminded the governor of Whitefish students’ interest in the movements and improving school safety. Following the March 14 ceremony, students wrote letters to Bullock.
Appearing on a video screen from his desk in Helena last week, Bullock held up the packet of letters the students had sent him and read one letter aloud during the town hall.
“Anna Cook had written, ‘Change has come and my generation is spearheading the movement,’ and I think that’s right,” Bullock said. “Meaning that, thank you for getting involved and continuing to get engaged. It’s amazing the strength of some of these young men and women from Parkland have impacted the overall discussion.”
Bullock avoided getting into specific ways to curb gun violence in schools, and the students did not press him, but the governor did say the right steps are being taken by school boards and communities all around the country. That, he said, is the starting point.
“The question becomes, do you put metal detectors in your school, do you ask your teachers to carry concealed weapons? I think arming teachers is a bad idea, I think School Resource Officers is a good idea. What we’re having by and large so far is discussions at the local school board level. Billings is doing some things making it harder to even see into school buildings, Helena is making some efforts on making it harder to get access into schools,” he said. “I think, at least until the next legislative session, it is going to be decided by locals and whether we make it a larger state issue will be another step.”
“But I also think when it comes to gun safety there are any number of steps we could take,” he added.
The Whitefish School District has held sessions with an appointed Safety and Security Citizens Work Group that has been examining what the district is doing well and what it could improve in regards to school safety.
In January Bullock became the first governor to protect a free and open Internet with an executive order mandating that any Internet Service Provider working on a state government contract cannot charge more for faster delivery or block websites to any customer in the state. The order was in response to a decision by the Federal Communications Commission in December that rolled back net neutrality protections and was the main topic last week of Bullock’s town hall with students.
“First, thanks for doing this,” Bullock said. “We haven’t done a lot of these, I’ve done some of them with smaller schools like in far eastern Montana. The ability to do this, in part, could be impeded if we don’t have a free and open Internet.”
Bullock got involved with the issue of net neutrality after his high school-aged daughter, Caroline, and her friends called his office and brought it to his attention.
After his executive order, Bullock made a template to share with other interested governors. Initially, he said, he was worried Montana would end up the only state pushing back on the FCC’s ruling.
To his pleasant surprise, more states joined in.
“Fortunately, the first state that followed Montana’s lead was a little tiny state you might have heard of called New York. After that, New Jersey, Hawaii and Vermont did that too,” he said.
Bullock addressed questions sent by the students ahead of time before opening up to students in attendance.
Responding to a question on whether net neutrality laws will ever be permanently protected, the governor said continued fighting for a free and open Internet is likely the reality.
“In some respects, until last December when the FCC made its ruling, we thought we were in a pretty darn good place,” Bullock said. “The only way that we permanently win this is by continuing to be vigilant.”
Whitefish student Dean Kellogg asked if the rest of the states follow Montana’s lead in protecting net neutrality, does the governor foresee the FCC reinstating the protections they repealed.
“It’s hard to say, but kind of my hope and intent is, ‘Who cares what the FCC does now, because the ISPs recognize there’s enough market share between New York, New Jersey, Montana and these states already, and they’ve said earlier that basically we can count on them to do so,” Bullock said.
“What we’re trying to do in some ways is make it so the FCC is completely irrelevant, so they can do whatever they want in that regard, yet we’ll still have the same expectations of the providers,” he added.
After initial discussion about net neutrality, students were free to open the conversation to other topics.
Senior Zach Ade asked Bullock about one of the main issues facing his peers — college affordability.
“Over the last few decades, college has become really expensive for students, upwards of $60,000 to $70,000 a year for a four-year university,” Ade said. “Is there any legitimate way to make college more affordable for students like myself and seniors in this room who want to go to college, but simply don’t have a way to afford it?”
Bullock noted Montana has continued to invest in higher education even when most other states backed off of those investments, but that hasn’t exactly solved the problem.
“If you look at 2009, from the recession to today, 46 states have decreased their investments in higher education, on average by about 17 percent. Montana is one of only a small handful of four states that actually increased their investment. Now that doesn’t mean, all being said, it’s a heck of a lot easier to go to college, because it is getting more and more expensive,” Bullock said.