Sen. Affie Ellis had to use the bathroom while traveling through Wyoming this year, and the only place she could find was an elementary school. So, much to her alarm, she walked right in.
“The door was open, no one asked for my identification,” the Cheyenne Republican said. “It was really scary.”
At a time when mass shootings have many people worried, the Wyoming Legislature is taking a first crack at securing schools.
“When we’re dropping off our kids, we pray for their safety and we hope our teachers and staff are safe and as secure as they can be,” Ellis said. “I really want to be able to tell anyone across Wyoming that we’ve looked at it as a statewide issue, and I think there’s more work to be done.”
At the end of the 2018 session the Legislature directed the Joint Education Committee to dig into school safety and security.
Although she now lives in Cheyenne, Ellis grew up here and graduated from Jackson Hole High School. This will be her third session since being elected to the state Senate in 2016. Her bill is the only one addressing school safety so far this session.
“I think this is the most important issue we could be working on,” Ellis said. “Not only as a committee, but as a legislature.”
The bill is fairly basic, setting what Ellis described as a “floor” for safety and security. It would modify the duties of the state superintendent of public instruction and school boards and change school safety drill requirements.
“The bill that we’re bringing forward talks about that human element of what kind of training and planning we should be doing to make sure our schools are as safe and secure as they need to be,” Ellis said.
Specifically, the state superintendent (currently Jillian Balow) would be required to consult with the Department of Homeland Security, the attorney general’s office, the state fire marshal and the state construction department to create guidelines that assist school districts in developing newly required comprehensive safety and security plans.
Schools would be required to develop and annually review a safety and security plan submitted to the department of education during the accreditation process. The plan would include intervention techniques used to de-escalate the potential for students’ violent behavior, a description of how the district will evaluate advances in technology and a description of how the district will coordinate with law enforcement.
Districts would also be required to publicize the state’s safety call center to all staff and students and implement a system to train all their employees.
As it’s written now, the bill would keep those plans out of the public record — meaning community members like parents and journalists wouldn’t know specifics — and appropriate $100,000 to help districts train staff.
Jackson on the right track
Teton County School District No. 1 does many of the things that might become law. Each school has a crisis plan and a continuity of operations plan. They cover everything from natural disasters like flooding to a shooter.
All staff went through shooter training this fall and in previous years. While two other districts in Wyoming have voted to arm teachers, schools here are tightening building security and bolstering social supports and school culture.
But Ellis said she’s concerned that not all districts do the same thing.
“As you start looking at what my school district is doing comparing it to what’s happening in Teton County, Natrona County and some of the smaller districts, I think we really need to shine a light on some of the really affordable best practices, things districts can be doing to make sure that people that are in the building should be,” she said.
Is it state overreach?
The bill might run into opposition from those who favor local control. The News Letter Journal, Newcastle’s newspaper, opposes the bill, saying it is “another heavy-handed effort from the Legislature and the Wyoming Department of Education to do a job we’re already doing ourselves — and doing better.
“When it comes to school safety, the state legislature is again ensuring a level playing field in education by bringing us down to the level of schools in Wyoming who aren’t being as proactive or transparent with their communities as we are, and that is just plain wrong,” a Dec. 5 editorial stated.
Ellis said she’s anticipated some pushback on that front and hopes districts can tailor their actions to their own situations. She wants to be “really respectful” while also not sitting idly by.
“I think that’s always a fair consideration,” she said. “That’s the nature of the game when you’re talking about education policy at the state level. Is this violating too much local control?”
But as Ellis travels around Wyoming, and finds some schools with doors wide open, she said the state needs to act.