Visiting a state that last year passed a school safety bill allowing certain staff members to carry concealed weapons, the Federal Commission on School Safety on Tuesday heard from students and educators who still oppose the idea.
“Asking school personnel to do the job of law enforcement and military personnel is nothing short of asking your plumber to cut your hair,” Brian Cox, principal of Johnson Junior High School in Laramie County School District 1 in Cheyenne, Wyo., told the commission. “It’s just not the job you’d want them to do.”
One of a few students who addressed the commission, Vera Berger of Bosque School in Albuquerque, N.M., said arming teachers and adding more school resource officers is a threat to students’ “emotional and physical safety.” She asked the commission to raise minimum ages for gun purchases and to pass “red flag” laws, which allow family members or police to ask a judge to temporarily take a gun away from someone who appears to be a threat to themselves or others
“My generation has had a sort of collective realization in the past few years that our fears of being shot at school are in no way baseless,” she said. “We should be planning prom dates instead of escape routes.”
Holding its third listening session at a hotel conference center in Cheyenne, the representatives from the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, first heard statements from local and state education leaders, law enforcement personnel and elected officials from throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
Calling for local control and flexible approaches, the speakers highlighted the importance of interagency cooperation in rural areas and requested additional funding for facility upgrades, such as classroom door locks and video cameras, as well as the freedom to use federal grant funds for more prevention programs.
“Things that occur in the frontier states as Wyoming and Montana and Idaho are very, very different from what might be where central government is located,” Elsie Arntzen, superintendent of the Montana Office of Public Instruction, told the commission.
Information sharing necessary, educators say
Several speakers noted the success of Safe to Tell, an anonymous tip line where anyone can report concerns about potential threats. First launched in Colorado, the program has also been picked up in other states. Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael told the commission that in addition to bullying, “suicide is a major event that Safe to Tell’s been successful at preventing.”
Suicide, he added, is the third most common report made on the system, and the fourth is planned school attacks. “If a state’s not working this program, I think they’re making a big mistake.”
A South Dakota sheriff, however, noted that it’s important for those types of systems to have checks and balances in place. “A lot of schools are getting notification systems,” said Minnehaha County Sheriff Michael Milstead. “The challenge is what happens with that information.”
Strong communication plans need to be in place, he said, so law enforcement officers, for example, don’t take action on an issue that a school handled two weeks ago or vice versa. “There are ways to share information and do it better, and we have to get better at that.”
Boyd Brown, the new superintendent of the Laramie district, also discussed the sharing of information, noting that in previous districts where he has served, he might have at times communicated with officials about issues regarding individual students that were not “legally shareable” under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, who presided over that portion of the session, assured him, however, that he would not have to worry about facing any consequences.
“Nobody has ever been prosecuted for sharing information under the terms of FERPA,” he said. “If you’re talking to law enforcement or mental health or juvenile justice about a potential issue, nobody in Washington is going to second guess you or question your judgment.”
Interagency cooperation is also critical, Milstead said, if a school does have a “sentinel” program. As with a federal marshal on an airplane, students aren’t supposed to know who the armed school employee is. But law enforcement personnel, game wardens and other armed officers need to know. That person then receives training from the sheriff’s department, he said.
In the public comment period, the commission also heard from Bill Tallen, a former federal agent and firearms instructor from Cody, Wyo., who founded Distributed Security Inc., a private security company that is training armed adults in schools. He said schools where some of the mass shootings have taken place, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., already had comprehensive safety plans in place.
“Every school shooting in modern America has, by definition, has occurred after a failure of these measures,” he said.
The agency representatives were likely to hear different perspectives on arming school personnel in a state with one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country. According to a 2015 study by public health researchers at Columbia University, published in the journal Injury Prevention, more than half of Wyoming residents over 18 — 53.8% — own guns. That rate was topped only by West Virginia, Idaho, Arkansas and Alaska, which had the highest of 61.7%.
The wait time for law enforcement to arrive on the scene of an incident can also be as long as 45 minutes, some officials said. Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said some areas of the state go six months without seeing a law enforcement officer.
“If we didn’t have citizen sentinels who were looking out for those types of emergencies, we would have been in a really rough spot,” she said.
In addition to the focus on logistics and threat assessment protocol, several speakers pointed to the lack of counselors and other school mental health professionals as a significant obstacle in addressing areas of concern they see among students and providing early intervention.
“The world definitely needs more cowboys and cowgirls who are unafraid of talking about mental health issues,” said Stacey Kern, the director of special services for Carbon County School District 1 in Wyoming and a member of the Wyoming School Psychology Association board. “School cannot just be about reading, writing and math anymore. We have to actually teach our students how to be socially and emotionally healthy.”