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.
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.”
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.”