HELENA — Over the last few years, the Montana Legislature has launched a number of new programs aimed at providing more tools to address the issue of missing people in Montana – particularly in Indian Country. Now, leaders say one of those programs is showing noticeable growth.
In 2019, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 40, sponsored by then-Sen. and now-Rep. Frank Smith of Poplar. It created a statewide repository of Montana public school students’ photos, which can be accessed only to give law enforcement a current image if a student is reported missing.
Parents or guardians must opt in each year for their children’s school photos to be included.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction oversees the repository. According to OPI data, in the fall of 2020, only 4,204 students had photos included. That number grew to 23,288 by the second semester and 27,369 this school year. That is about 18.1% of the 150,977 eligible students.
Among American Indian students, the percentage is lower. OPI says 1,945 have photos included in the repository – about 9.1% of the 21,466 Native students.
Leaders say that in many cases, they don’t have recent photos for missing kids and teens. As of September 29, a Montana Department of Justice report showed 74 missing people aged 18 or younger. 40 of the entries included photos, while 34 didn’t.
For more information, visit the OPI website, which includes this overview:
- Parents must opt-in for their child’s photograph to be included in the repository. Your school or district will provide you with a form or other means to opt-in.
- Your child’s photograph will only be used by law enforcement for the express purpose of locating your child should he/she be reported to law enforcement as missing. No other use by OPI or law enforcement is permitted. Access by OPI staff will be strictly limited and controlled to staff or contractors creating and maintaining the repository.
- Photos will be updated annually; if the photo is not updated and the parent doesn’t opt-out, the photos will be purged after two years.
- Photographs can be added, updated or removed from the repository at anytime upon request by contacting your child's school or district.
During an American Indian Heritage Day ceremony in Helena last week, state Sen. Jason Small of Busby urged people to sign up for the repository.
“I would ask everybody here today to think about that – and maybe pass word along as time goes by – and see if we can’t get that number up, because it could make a difference between life and death for some of these kids,” he said.