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Natrona County school board mulls firearms, other ways to protect students

The recent massacre at a Florida high school has Natrona County School District officials mulling a broad range of changes — including arming teachers — to better protect its students and staff.

“I think we need to address low-probability, high-impact events,” school board member Dave Applegate said at a Monday night trustee meeting. “You never think it’s going to happen to your school, but you have to be ready.”

He ticked off a number of things the school board could consider, from metal detectors and security cameras to adding more scrutiny to school resource officer training. Officials will also examine how schools respond to fire alarms.

Applegate said that though the district offered active shooter training to staff, the attack in Florida — in which the gunman pulled the fire alarm to draw more people out — showed that reality does not always mirror training.

Tom Ernst, the district’s director of student support services and the point man for student and staff safety, said he had recently spoken about that concern with Mark Harshman, a division chief with the Casper Fire Department.

“We all grew up in the era where, fire alarm goes off, we all get in our lines, we all exit the building,” Ernst told the board. “But we know in incidents like in Florida and in Arkansas and other places, fire alarms were pulled to maximize casualties. The fire chief and I are on the same page, where we should have a delay put in place, where we do go into a lockdown to ascertain what is the nature of the alarm.”

The discussion came less than two weeks after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff were murdered in a high school by an ex-student wielding an assault weapon. Since that attack, there have been at least four threats made to Wyoming schools — two in Natrona County — in a post-Florida surge nationwide.

Multiple options

In the wake of the attack, lawmakers, educators and the president have all debated arming some staff in schools. The Wyoming Legislature last year passed a law allowing local school boards to decide whether to arm their staff. Several districts have already taken steps toward implementing a policy.

On Monday in Casper, the school board publicly discussed arming staff for the first time. Trustee Kevin Christopherson said that while some staff shouldn’t have guns, “there are some people that can” handle them in a high-stress situations.

Kelly Walsh High School will begin offering a Marine JROTC program in the fall. Enlisted personnel and an officer who will work for the program would be prepared to respond to an active shooter.

“Most people are not going to win a gunfight,” Christopherson said. “They just won’t. But there are Marines that will. They should have access.”

Ernst said the district should look at nonlethal deterrents, as well, like bear spray. Another trustee mentioned a security system that, when activated, would release thick smoke from the sprinklers in an attempt to block a shooter’s line of sight.

Trustees Toni Billings and Angela Coleman said the district should emphasize more training in the classroom and that teachers should look for students who are ostracized. Coleman said school staff should pay closer attention to who is being let into buildings. Billings wanted more preventative measures and ways to teach children how to deal with conflict.

Ernst said he and district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland met with Natrona County Sheriff Gus Holbrook, who is looking at a program coming out of New York. The program involves a team of educators, law enforcement and mental health experts working to identify at-risk students at a young age.

Holbrook’s team “would monitor and work with this child as they progressed through the system,” Ernst said. “I think that has some merit to it.”

Arming teachers?

Board member Clark Jensen said his son teaches in Utah and recently obtained a conceal-carry permit so he could bring a weapon into school. Jensen said his son wanted to be a deterrent and didn’t want to be at the mercy of a gunman.

“I think sometimes we make our school systems a target by saying this is a no-gun zone,” he said.

He said the district here could make conceal-carry available to those who want it and that the policy could act as a deterrent.

Trustee Dana Howie, a former teacher who told the Star-Tribune last week she personally didn’t support arming staff, asked why schools didn’t just put up a sign saying there were armed personnel on campus and never disclose if there actually were or not.

Christopherson said the district already entrusted bus drivers to transport students at high speeds across the state. Officials should look into trusting staff — who are willing and able — with firearms.

Howie replied by reading a quote from a Marine-turned-teacher, who said that he wouldn’t want a firearm in his classroom because, in the event of an active shooter, he felt there would be “no way to avoid hitting another student.”

“Yeah, it’s a tough situation,” Christopherson acknowledged.

After the meeting, Superintendent Steve Hopkins said he and his staff were already working to better shore up and understand school safety. Each of the school board’s subcommittees — policy, academic steering and construction — will all have oversight of different staff work. For instance, the policy committee will oversee a review of “federal and state law, policies, regulations, standard operating procedures” and more.

Hopkins said he would also be reaching out to the districts who’ve looked into arming staff to get information about their policies. He said the school board may hold public forums or release a survey in the future to weight the community’s thoughts on putting guns in schools.

He said he would strongly encourage trustees to give the community “multiple avenues” to weigh in.

“Are we going to choose to be immobilized by (school safety) or are we going to choose to go proactive about it?” Hopkins asked. “You can obviously tell which direction I want to go.”

Despite warning from NRA, Wyoming Senate guts immunity provision in 'stand your ground' bill

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Senate gutted a so-called “stand your ground” bill that sought to provide initial immunity from arrest and prosecution for assault or murder to anyone who claimed self-defense.

In a contentious vote Tuesday, the Senate removed the immunity provision and brought the measure inline with current Wyoming law, which allows individuals to use force in self-defense but only if doing so is reasonable. Prosecutors may still bring charges against someone who claims to have acted in self-defense if law enforcement believes the more reasonable option would have been to retreat or de-escalate the situation.

“It’s very, very close to what Wyoming law is now,” Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said of the amended bill. “You have the obligation to do as a reasonable man would.”

The original measure would have stated that individuals never had a duty to retreat when feeling threatened, even if a jury or prosecutor believed that doing so would have been the best option. Police would have been prohibited from arresting or detaining anyone who had acted in self-defense. The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police came out in opposition to that provision, noting it would be difficult for an officer to determine in the heat of the moment whether a suspect was legitimately defending him or herself.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, opposed the change to the bill, arguing that it effectively stripped it of protections for innocent people who act to defend themselves. Bouchard warned his colleagues against voting for the amendment.

“National organizations are watching this bill and are watching how this moves forward,” Bouchard said. “It’s going to have consequences.”

Lawmakers are not allowed to name groups during floor debates, but Wyoming Gun Owners and the National Rifle Association sent notes to senators prior to the vote opposing the amendment.

A note sent to Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, on Tuesday from lobbyists from the National Rifle Association and Wyoming Gun Owners. It warned that a proposed amendment to the "stand your ground" bill that the Senate was considering would be scored as "anti-gun."

“Senator — Pls note that both NRA + WYGO will score the amendment as an anti-gun vote + will report it as such to our members, Pls oppose it,” read a note sent to Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, from NRA state liaison Travis Couture-Lovelady and Aaron Dorr of Wyoming Gun Owners. Hastert said it was similar to the notes sent to all senators.

“People felt intimidated,” Hastert said in an interview. “I’ve never had a note like that before.”

Couture-Lovelady said he was not allowed to speak to the media. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment made through its website.

Perkins, who sponsored the amendment, said that he would not be cowed by the gun lobbyists.

“You know what, I’m not pulling this amendment,” Perkins said. “I told myself a long time ago that I was going to come down here and do what I thought was right, whether a special interest group thought I was right or not.”

Perkins’ amendment passed 22-8. Voting against the changes were Sens. Wyatt Agar, Paul Barnard, Leeland Christensen, Ogden Driskill, Curt Meier, Glenn Moniz, R. Ray Peterson and Bouchard, all Republicans.

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said that consideration of the note, including Bouchard’s reference to it, violated Senate rules and called on his colleagues to back the amendment on principle.

“These notes are in violation of our obligation to debate fairly without any duress,” Kinskey said.

While advocates of the bill acknowledged that Wyoming law currently allowed individuals to defend themselves, they said that without the immunity protections people who do so could spend years going through the legal process.

Dorr, with Wyoming Gun Owners, said the changes made to the Senate bill weakened its protections for law-abiding people who are forced to defend themselves. He said that while some good points remained in the legislation, the group was waiting to see a final version before taking a position on the amended bill.

“Our members are very concerned about the criminal immunity protection,” Dorr said. “We don’t want to have a gun owner bankrupted by the criminal process just because he had to use a firearm in self-defense.”

After passing the amendment that included the major changes to the bill and rejecting another more minor one, the Senate approved the stand your ground bill and moved it onto third reading. If it passes on third reading, it will be sent to the House for consideration.

The House is considering its own “stand your ground” measure, which closely matches Bouchard’s original bill. It chose to postpone consideration of its version until Wednesday.

GOP leaders move slowly on tighter gun laws

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday showed little interest in stricter gun control proposals being floated in Congress, leaving the issue in the hands of wary Senate leaders and President Donald Trump, whose shifting views have left no clear strategy for legislative action.

As student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting lobbied lawmakers for tougher gun laws, Ryan acknowledged "system failures" in Florida that he said Congress should review.

But GOP leaders did not promise votes on the matter and stopped short of offering solutions, beyond a pending bill aimed at increasing participation in the existing federal background check system. The bill uses new incentives and penalties to encourage better compliance with current law, but does not expand the pool of gun buyers required to undergo background checks before buying a gun.

Even as he endorsed the measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed its significance, saying it would not be a "panacea" for the rash of gun violence.

But McConnell said he wanted to "at least show some progress toward dealing with one element of the problem."

Republican leaders, who have majority control of the House and Senate, are reluctant to lead on legislation without knowing they have Trump's full support and can rely on his popularity with a core flank of the GOP electorate to shield them from political blowback.

But Trump, who is inviting lawmakers to the White House on Wednesday, has proven an inconsistent partner in such policy debate, including the issue of gun violence that has taken on fresh urgency since the Valentine's Day assault that left 17 dead.

One of Trump's top gun safety proposals after the Florida shooting — raising the age to purchase some rifles from 18 to 21 — receded after Trump lunched with leaders of the National Rifle Association last weekend. The idea had been promoted by TV personality Geraldo Rivera, who recently had dinner with Trump in Florida. But it was met with stiff resistance from the NRA.

Although Trump has been quiet about the idea in recent days, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that the president continues to support raising the minimum age and expects that to be a topic of discussion when he meets with lawmakers.

But Rivera, a Trump ally, scolded the president on Twitter for appearing to back away from the proposal. "Incredibly we're set to do nothing re gun control again," Rivera tweeted. "The only person in the country strong enough to stand up to #NRA @realDonaldTrump is apparently taking a pass after dropping modest reform of banning sales of semi automatics to kids not old enough to buy cigarettes & beer."

The Senate could vote this week on the legislation from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, though votes were not yet scheduled amid resistance from within the GOP ranks and demands by Democrats to vote on other measures.

The "Fix NICS" bill, similar to one approved last year in the House, would reward federal agencies and states that utilize the background check system, and penalize those that don't properly report required records used to determine whether someone can legally buy a gun. It was introduced last fall after the shooting of churchgoers in Texas. At the time, authorities acknowledged having failed to report the Texas gunman's domestic violence conviction to the database.

"Let's do what we can and build from there," Cornyn said.

But broader proposals were quickly circulating, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the Senate to be more ambitious than the "tiny" bill.

Meanwhile, Florida's governor said Tuesday that he's determined to make the Parkland school shooting the last the state ever experiences.

Gov. Rick Scott met with Miami-Dade County officials to outline a plan to pass a school safety bill before the state's annual legislative session ends next Friday.

Scott says he wants to spend $500 million to increase law enforcement and mental health counselors at schools, to make buildings more secure with metal detectors and to create an anonymous tip line.

Family members of slain students spoke during the news conference and during a legislative hearing Tuesday in Tallahassee.

Also Tuesday, a Florida House committee approved the bill that would raise the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21 and create a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases. The bill would also create a program that allows teachers who receive law enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff's office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom if also approved by the school district.

Also, Justice Department officials are forging ahead with plans to ban rapid-fire bump stocks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday — a move that would likely set the stage for long legal battles with gun manufacturers while the devices remain on the market.

Sessions said top officials within the department believe gun accessories like the ones used in last year's Las Vegas massacre can be banned through the regulatory process. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives previously said it was powerless to restrict the devices without action from Congress.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Wyoming Cowboys head basketball coach Allen Edwards talks with his players during a timeout in their game against San Jose State on Feb. 17 at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.

As Legislature passes half point, educators alarmed by Senate proposal that would cut as much as $150 million in next 3 years

Local and state education officials are sounding the alarm about a Senate proposal that — they say — would cut $150 million from Wyoming’s schools over the next three years.

As the Legislature passes its halfway point, the House and the Senate remain divided on how to handle the education funding crisis. In the House, lawmakers are pushing a proposal with more than $30 million in cuts over the next three years while also looking to the find new revenue sources for Wyoming schools. Down the hall, in the Senate, legislators are backing a bill that will roll in as much as $150 million in cuts.

Both bills are holding while their respective sponsors consider amendments.

In Natrona County, the House bill would have little effect on educators’ current plan for handling reductions. The school district is operating off of a budget plan of cutting roughly $4 million a year for the next two years as it absorbs budgetary blows already delivered from the Legislature.

Under the Senate bill, however, the district would take at least an $18 million hit over three years, on top of the cuts the district is already rolling out.

“Scary,” Superintendent Steve Hopkins said Monday evening. “Big. It would be very — we’ve talked about this a lot the last few years. I think that would be very difficult to pull off, even in our proactive environment, while avoiding significant impact to students. Really ramping up class sizes, laying off employees, dramatic cuts in budgets.”

It could also mean closing schools. With more students in classes and less teachers in the district, Natrona County could look at shuttering more buildings. The school board has voted to close five schools due to budget woes in the past 13 months.

If shuttering buildings was ever a palatable choice for trustees, it doesn’t appear to be any longer. During a budget meeting Monday afternoon, as Hopkins explained the impacts of the Senate’s bill, one trustee muttered to another: “I’m not closing another school.”

Bargaining chip?

It’s not just the Senate’s bill that is making educators nervous. The Senate has effectively folded the bill’s language into its version of the budget, meaning that the cuts now exist in its own piece of legislation and in a massive budget document.

“They did that because with a bill they can just kill it,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “But with a budget, they have to talk about it.”

That means both the Senate and the House will pass their own version of the budget and then come together to negotiate their differences. Folding the contents of the Senate’s education bill into the budget means it cannot be swept away with negotiations with the other side.

It’s a remarkably similar situation to where the chambers stood at this point last year. The House had an omnibus bill that tapped savings, rolled in cuts and proposed conditional tax increases, among other changes. The Senate, meanwhile, looked at a bill that focused solely on cuts. Senators also put an amendment into their budget that would trigger $91 million in school cuts, a move that was widely seen as a way to force the House to negotiate.

Both bills passed their respective chambers and headed across the hall. The Senate heavily amended the House bill, and the House ignored the Senate bill altogether. Lawmakers from each chamber eventually met and, at literally the 11th hour, approved a version of the House’s bill. The budget amendment was significantly watered down and essentially had no effect.

Educators suspect that’s where this year’s session is headed. Brian Farmer, the Wyoming School Board Association, said the Senate’s moves were a way to bring the House to the table.

“The House is talking about, ‘This is what we believe is best,’” Farmer said. “The Senate is saying, ‘This will get us into best negotiations.’ That’s a little frustrating from the outside, to tell you the truth. ... I would rather be talking about what is it we truly want rather than playing this legislative game of staking out a position so we can negotiate to some place in the middle.”

Farmer and Vetter both said they preferred the House bill, officially titled HB 140. The legislation does not increase class sizes, tinker with health insurance or salaries. The largest cut in the bill comes from a provision that would tighten up how enrollment — which essentially determines districts’ funding — is calculated.

The bill would also divert a number of revenue sources to fund education and school construction, while making it easier for districts to count students in their enrollment tallies.

“What we like about (the House bill) is it looks forward, about how we fund education into the future,” Vetter said. “It actually has revenue streams to fund education behind this biennium. The Senate side is just looking for ways to cut.”

That bill, dubbed Senate File 117, would increase class sizes to varying degrees for grades four through 12, hikes which would slowly increase over the coming years. It would also tighten up how enrollment is calculated in a somewhat more restrictive way than the House’s bill, and it would similarly tighten how much money districts would be given for health insurance.

It would also spread $10 million across the state’s districts 48 next year and $5 million in the year after that to help offset some of the blows.

A message left for the bill’s sponsor, Cowley Republican Sen. Ray Peterson, was not returned by press time Tuesday.

Legislative staffers estimated that parts of the bill would cut $114.8 million over the coming three fiscal years. But the impacts of six pieces of the bill — notably the insurance provision, among several others — are unknown. Educators say the additions bring the total cuts to $150 million, at least.

“So we think that those range somewhere between 35, 45 or more million dollars per year,” Farmer said. “Probably in that range – again it depends on how do you count it?”