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Student Walkout

Natrona County High School students sit in the end zone of the school's football field last March during a walkout to show solidarity with victims of mass shootings. State lawmakers rejected the only bill in the recently completed legislative session designed to address school safety.

The top educator in Wyoming says she was “really disappointed” that a bill that would’ve standardized security measures in schools across the state was killed in the House, leaving lawmakers empty-handed on safety after another bloody year in American schools.

“That was really disappointing because school safety and security is not something we can chalk up to another report for teachers or chalk up to, ‘It didn’t get there this year, let’s try again next year,’” state Superintendent Jillian Balow said last week. “This is the safety and well-being of our kids.”

The bill, Senate File 64, was brought late in 2018 by Sen. Affie Ellis, a Cheyenne Republican. It received the support of the Joint Education Committee, and Balow said her department was involved in crafting the legislation as well. The measure would’ve mandated security plans in Wyoming school districts and provided broad guidelines for what those plans must look like. Crucially, Balow said, it also would’ve required the plans to give educators the ability to identify and intervene with potentially dangerous students.

School safety and security was a priority topic for the education committee last summer and fall. But Ellis’ bill, which passed on the last day the group met before the legislative session began, was the only measure addressing the issue. It sailed easily out of the Senate and a House committee, as it was the only piece of legislation before lawmakers that would’ve addressed security in K-12 schools.

“Part of that legislation is giving us the ability at the state level to collaborate … and create best practice guidelines for schools that say, ‘Look, if we’re talking about school safety and security, here are the must dos, here are the may-dos, and here are some other things you might want to consider,’” Balow said.

But the measure ran into trouble in the House. Critics of the bill, even in the education world, had said the bill mandated districts do something all of them were already doing.

Rep. Albert Sommers, a Pinedale Republican, said during debate that he understood “the sentiment” but that “if you’ve been in any of our schools and they’re not doing this, I would be shocked.”

“This is a whole lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing,” Speaker Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican and Natrona County High teacher and coach, told other lawmakers in February.

Other lawmakers disagreed. Rep. Landon Brown called Sommers’ suggestion that the bill’s goal was already being accomplished “100 percent false.” He referred to the fall incident in Gillette, where a student brought two handguns and 36 bullets to a junior high school with the intention of killing several teachers and students. He was disarmed by the principal before he was able to use the weapons.

Brown’s argument didn’t gain enough ground, and the bill died in the House at the first hurdle.

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Balow said officials “can’t wait” to bring the bill or a similar one back because it’s too important. She said the safety efforts undertaken by schools vary from county to county and district by district.

She also said the bill’s emphasis on the well-being of students was critical.

“That is every bit as much a school safety issue as the hard security of a school,” Balow said.

Her Department of Education won’t be waiting until next session, she said. The agency will continue working with law enforcement, schools and communities, she said, while trying to broker trainings between districts. If one district is having a training that another might be interested in, the Education Department, she said, would try to help send educators into those sessions.

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Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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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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