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As national debate simmers, some school districts move closer to arming staff

The Natrona County School District board will likely discuss arming staff at some point soon, a board member said, a week after a gunman killed 17 people in a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Dana Howie, the school board’s vice chairwoman and the head of the policy subcommittee, said she’d gotten calls from a few residents, including City Councilman Jesse Morgan, about whether the district will consider allowing its teachers and staff to carry weapons. Last year, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill that would allow school boards to decide whether to arm their employees.

She said the board will have a discussion about it soon.

“I know I’m going to bring it up with my policy committee and see what they have to say about it,” Howie said.

It’s the first sign of movement in Natrona County since the bill was passed last winter. Then-board chairman Kevin Christopherson said in March that while he supported it, he was too busy to bring it forward himself. It gained no outward traction for months, and in October, he said no one on the board was interested in pushing it.

Whether to arm school staff has become a common topic of debate after mass shootings. It emerged again in the wake of Feb. 14’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student carrying a semi-automatic assault weapon opened fire in a high school, killing 17 and injuring 14.

President Donald Trump tweeted last week that “highly trained teachers” would be able to “immediately fire back if a savage sicko came to a school with bad intentions.” But the superintendent in Broward County, the site of the shooting, pushed back against the president’s suggestion.

“I am totally against arming teachers,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “They have a challenging job as it is.”

There was an armed sheriff’s deputy on campus the day of the Parkland massacre. He did not enter the building during the shooting and has resigned.

Howie, the board member and a former teacher, said her personal opinion was that arming staff would create more problems than it would solve.

“I know that I would not want one,” she said. “I would do anything to protect my students. I seriously would rather stand there and have them behind me rather than shoot somebody just because I don’t think I can do it.”

She said the district currently provides active shooter training and has a crisis management team to prepare for emergency situations.

Other Wyoming districts have shown interest in arming teachers.

In Park County School District No. 6, the school board recently voted to move the policy forward. That board’s version would largely allow only certified staff — like teachers — to carry firearms on school property, Superintendent Ray Schulte said. There would be an exception for certain rural schools, where any approved personnel could carry a gun.

The district will also require psychological evaluations, alcohol and drug testing and board-approved training.

District officials issued a survey to its residents and is expecting the results by the end of February. The board will decide in March to move the policy to a final vote or reject it.

At a meeting in January, the “vast majority” of people who attended opposed the measure. A petition against arming staff was signed by more than 350 people.

Schulte said the opposition is “significant” but noted that the district has over 10,000 registered voters, hence the survey. The district’s staff was split between support and opposition, he said.

“All of the schools, whether they’re rural or located in Cody, there’s a question about if we have staff armed in the buildings, does that deter some people?” Schulte said. “Does it deter someone from coming onto our property and causing harm? I don’t know the answer to that. But certainly there are people who believe that.”

Superintendent Dave Barker, of Fremont County School District No. 1, said he was just starting to gather information for his board about arming staff. Like Schulte, Barker sent out a survey to the community to gauge interest.

“It’s looking like it’s about half,” he said of the initial survey results. “Fifty percent say it might be a good idea. Probably about 40 (percent) opposed, another 10 (percent) or so are kind of undecided.”

Unlike in Park 6, there’s been no definite action taken by Fremont 1’s board.

Kari Eakins, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the department didn’t have a formal count of how many districts are considering arming staff members. But various media reports she shared show that at least three more have looked at it recently: Park 1, Uinta 1 and Goshen 1.

All three had discussed arming staff before the Parkland shootings, per the media reports.

Howie said there’s interest in protecting students in Natrona County that isn’t isolated to arming staff. Two parents wanted to raise money for equipment to prevent doors from being opened.

She said that while she didn’t support it, the board will discuss allowing guns in schools.

“I think we have to listen to the public and see what they have to say,” she said.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

Converse County oil and gas project is an opportunity of incredible scope, with challenges to match

About 100 ranch trucks and industrial vehicles hauling equipment to the oil fields pass through a remote crossroads in Converse County each day.

In about a decade that number could jump by 1,800 percent.

One of the largest developments Wyoming has ever seen could be coming to this empty stretch of prairie. At it’s peak, the proposed project would include 5,000 oil and gas wells on 1,500 pads.

The scale of the proposed project is hard to envision, but the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Land Management tell a story of staggering growth. With it comes a similar number of concerns, from road wear to water use.

At a recent public meeting in Casper, officials from the Bureau of Land Management said an estimated 8,000 jobs could be generated by the project and between $18 and $28 billion in revenue and economic activity.

The agency recently released its draft environmental study for feedback and held meetings in Casper, Douglas and Glenrock as part of the public comment period, allowing everyone from county officials to ranchers to weigh in on the proposed plan.

The project is an undeniable boon for business in the county and for nearby Casper, the center of Wyoming’s oil and gas services industry. It would offer both jobs and revenue for Wyoming at a time when the state is still distancing itself from the effects of a crippling bust in the fossil fuel industries.

But with big projects come big challenges. For some the environmental effects of the project could be as shocking as its industrial achievements.

“Oil and gas is part of our history and will continue to be part of our future,” said Jim Willox, a Converse County commissioner at the meeting in Casper. “This is just a process to help us look closer at what this development means to Converse County, the pros and the cons.”

The project

The Converse County proposal spans 1.5 million acres of land. It’s located between Douglas and Glenrock with the Interstate 25 along the southern border and the county line at the north.

Chesapeake Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, Devon Energy, EOG Resources and SM Energy brought the proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. The environmental analysis from the Bureau of Land Management considers a 10-year time frame in which five companies drill the 5,000 wells.

The joint approach to development over a wide area is unique in the Powder River Basin, said Mike Robinson, the project manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

This is the largest project Robinson has seen in the state, and these are some of the largest players in Wyoming. More than a dozen other operators are also drilling or planning to drill in the oil and gas rich area.

But the Converse proposal also stands out because of split estate. Only 10 percent of the surface is federally owned, but the Bureau of Land Management holds the rights to more than half of the resources to be mined.

That hampers the agency in some ways when it comes to development, Robinson said. The Bureau of Land Management does not have as much control over how the development proceeds as it would if it also owned the land.

“There are all these intricacies that private land adds to it,” the project manager said.

A lot has changed in the four years that the Bureau of Land Management has been studying this proposal. It’s a process that has to start somewhere, even though technological changes in the oil and gas fields have plowed ahead since the start of the environmental review, Robinson said.

A water problem

One thing is clear to both the agency and local officials: This project is going to take an incredible amount of water, more than was estimated in the environmental review.

In the proposed action, which mirrors the industry suggestion for how to proceed with development, the Bureau of Land Management estimated 9,750 acre feet of water will be disposed of every year, either in evaporation ponds or pumped down injection wells. That’s about 3 billion gallons of produced water every year.

The water demand needs a closer look, said Willox, the Converse commissioner at the Casper event.

Drilling has improved rapidly in the years since the environmental study began, he said.

“That means they get more resource out of the ground, but it also means they take more water,” he said. “That is one I think we’ve acknowledged as one of the challenges.”

It’s not clear where they going to get that amount of water in an arid region, said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who was present at the Casper event.

Neither is it clear how the companies will safely dispose of large volumes of liquid laced with salt and flow back contamination from fracking fluids, she said.

“If the price of oil goes up, it will be nuts. It will be the Bakken,” she said referring to the rapid oil and gas development that hit North Dakota.

The Pinedale precedent

Some see the Converse County project turning the Powder River Basin into the Bakken, with similar burdens of population booms and environmental risks. But others look within Wyoming’s borders, comparing the project to Pinedale.

One of the concerns that groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council are paying attention to is the air quality issues that will arise from such a large production increase.

The Upper Green River Basin faced dramatic air quality degradation linked to the boom in development in the Pinedale and Jonah gas fields. The area also has a geographic disadvantage due to its bowl shape and the surrounding mountains.

Pollution levels were comparable to a smoggy day in Los Angeles, prompting action from the state of Wyoming to implement new standards in recent years.

But while focus on Pinedale’s ozone troubles increased regulations there, the eastern side of the state kept its lower standards, said Jon Goldstein, a senior energy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has long been involved in Wyoming’s air quality issues.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently reviewing, and possibly unravelling federal standards on methane emissions that would apply to all BLM land.

The ambiguity over the future of methane rules introduces an interesting challenge for the large project in Converse County, Goldstein said.

“If BLM isn’t going to have rules on the books to limit the pollution and wasted natural gas for these wells, it’s really going to put the onus on the state to do something,” he said.

The scale of this project brings the familiar issues of a boom in Wyoming, from transportation and water waste to federal rules and air quality. But they are that much larger, everyone agreed at the meeting in Casper.

Dustin Bleizeffer, spokesman for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said the proposed alternative from the Bureau of Land Management appears to mirror exactly what the large industry companies proposed.

Where the plan falters, he said, is in militating against a host of environmental effects from industry at a scale that Wyoming hasn’t dealt with before.

Congress and guns: Ideas, but no consensus

WASHINGTON — After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was "up to states."

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president's ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it's bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

"There's no magic bill that's going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren't being enforced, that were broken," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. "The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts," said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers' baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

"I think we're going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we'll do something on age," Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: "We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It's time. It's time."

Trump said Sunday that the Florida school shooting is the top issue he wants to discuss with the nation's governors. Under pressure to act to stem gun violence on school grounds, Trump planned to solicit input from the state chief executives during meetings today at the White House. The governors are in Washington for their annual winter meeting.

Trump's early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump's apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey's office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

"Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot," Toomey said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don't properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman's domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review "bump-stock" devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

"The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action," Schumer said in a statement.

"Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?" Schumer asked. "I hope this time will be different."

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Clayton and Gloria Jensen, pictured Wednesday, are directors of the Casper Boxing Club. Clayton has been with the club for 30 years, and Gloria joined him after the two were married. 

Settlement reached in lawsuit against Albany County School District that alleged sexual assault

A family settled with the Albany County School District earlier this month after alleging the district could’ve done more to prevent the sexual assault of a 6-year-old girl.

The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. The settlement was announced Feb. 12, three days after a judge began considering a school district motion for summary judgement.

Holli Welch, who represented the family in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

John Coppede, who represented the school district, was not available Friday.

The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged that an 8-year-old boy sexually assaulted a first-grader during a 2014 field trip. The suit claimed that officials “knew that (the student) had a history of harassment and inappropriate sexual behavior toward female students, and that he posed a substantial threat to the students.”

In subsequent court filings, the district denied the allegations.

The male student allegedly had a history of “luring female students to put their heads on his lap; enticing female students to sit on his lap ... placing his hands between the legs of female students,” on the bus and elsewhere. The male student’s conduct was reported to first one transportation director, then his successor, and to the victim’s teacher, her principal and to the district’s assistant superintendent, the lawsuit alleged.

Both students are identified only by their initials in legal filings.

In February or March 2014, the girl and the male student were sitting next to each other on the bus on the way to a field trip, according to the suit.

The male student then allegedly placed his coat over them both. The victim told him to stop, to which the student replied that they were playing a game.

He then forced her hand down his pants, forced his hand down her pants and sexually assaulted her, the suit alleged. The student told the girl he would kill her father if she told anyone, according to the suit.

The victim feared riding the bus and lost interest in school, according to the lawsuit. Her mother contacted her daughter’s teacher and asked if there were an issue at school, to which the teacher said there was not, even though she knew about the boy’s behavior, the suit claimed.

It’s unclear how the alleged assault came to light. The girl’s family now lives in Georgia. They requested damages related to the assault, according to the lawsuit.

In a subsequent court filing, the school district responded by saying that any damages “were caused or contributed to by the acts and omissions of others over whom the school district had no control or right of control.”