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Natrona County School District assesses 18 months of work to improve security
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Natrona County School District assesses 18 months of work to improve security

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NCHS Lockdown

An armed Casper police officer guards the main entrance of Natrona County High School on Oct. 18 in Casper. The school was locked down after a report of a person with a gun on campus was sent to the school district's tip line.

In the wake of the most serious security incident at a Natrona County school in years, the school board and administrators met Monday to assess the security upgrades the district has undergone over the past 18 months, as leaders here seek to prevent Casper from becoming yet another town associated with the tide of bloodshed in America’s schools.

Roughly 18 months ago, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, the Natrona County school board directed its administrators to prioritize school safety. The response was swift. In the months since, the district has hired seven new school resource officers and has adopted a 10-point safety plan that has largely been implemented across Natrona County’s roughly 30 schools.

All of the district’s middle and high schools, for instance, have received a safety assessment from the Casper Police Department. The elementary schools are next.

Meanwhile, the extreme discipline matrix — unveiled as part of the security revamp and the bullying upheaval of 2018 — is used “daily,” said Tom Ernst, the district’s point-person for school safety. Additionally, the district has spent about $4.2 million on upgrading its schools’ security, with another $3.5 million worth projects in various stages of implementation and construction. Those upgrades include everything from better locks to better security cameras and entryways.

Ernst added that “chasing down threats is a daily occurrence, if not multiple times a day.”

Administrators told the board that the district has invested more than $700,000 in hiring the seven new school resource officers, which brings the district total to nine. The district pays 70 percent of the cost for those officers, with a goal of hiring another next year.

The cost prompted board member Debbie McCullar to wonder why the district had to foot so much of the bill.

“We’re a part of the community, too, that’s required to be patrolled,” she said. Administrators Mike Jennings and Walt Wilcox told her that the 70 percent rate was what was negotiated with the police department. Ernst chipped in to say he felt better knowing that schools had police cars outside their doors.

The meeting was especially timely, given the incident at Natrona County High School in October. Over the tipster app Safe2Tell, a female student made a threat of an armed stranger on NC’s campus. The tip prompted Casper police to lock down the building and sweep it from room to room with their guns drawn. Two other nearby schools were placed on precautionary lockouts. Later that same day, Casper Classical Academy was also locked out for a separate threat.

Jennings and Ernst said that the district vets every single tip it receives from Safe2Tell, whether that’s a threat of violence against a school or a concern for a student’s safety related to suicide. None of the tips “slip through,” Jennings said.

Still, the response at NC was marked for its intensity. Ernst said it had been roughly eight years since the district had a similarly severe threat and response.

The police response left some students shaken. One junior, who asked to be identified by her middle name Faith, said she was “freaked out” when a voice over the intercom told the students to barricade classrooms, as students and staff are taught as part of the district’s active shooter training program.

Faith said the police entered her classroom and pushed through the desks that the students had used to block the door.

“I saw the desk flying down, and then I saw a gun, and then I really freaked out,” she said, “and me and the girl next to me started crying.”

The police, she said, told them to “put your hands up, put your hands up.”

“I didn’t move,” she said. “They started pointing their guns at certain students and stuff, and me, too.”

She said the officers had bulletproof vests on and were carrying long guns or shotguns.

“They kept asking, ‘Is anyone in here,’” she said, “and they yelled at us and told us to answer the questions.”

Eventually, the officers left the classroom, and the students re-barricaded the entryway.

Gabriella Mora, a freshman at NC, said she was in the middle of a Spanish test when someone — she wasn’t sure who — came over the intercom and told them to lock down and that this wasn’t a drill. The students in her class barricaded their door, as well, she said. The police didn’t clear her classroom.

Her mother, Stephanie Webb, drove to the NC parking lot after she heard what was happening and waited there for two hours. She saw police officers on the roof of the building. Gabriella’s teacher told the class that there was someone on campus with a gun.

After the lockdown was lifted, NC returned to regular school business. Webb said she took Gabriella out of school and didn’t let her out of her sight the rest of the day. Webb said she was grateful that the district communicated with parents throughout the ordeal.

A female student was later arrested on suspicion of making terroristic threats in connection to the incident.

Faith said she was upset that school continued.

“I was traumatized by it,” she said. “It made me upset. I went home after that. Not a lot of people stayed at the school. That’s a lot to deal with.”

The response was the most serious in a wave of threats and lockouts at NC in recent years. Faith said she was “just prepared for it now. It’s something you get used to.”

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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