Teton County School District’s board of trustees could vote to allow employees with concealed weapons permits to carry firearms on school property under a law expected to be signed by Gov. Matt Mead.
House Bill 194, which the Wyoming Legislature passed March 1, says school districts across the state will have the power to allow possession of firearms by school district employees on school property, effective in July. The definition of employee includes people like superintendents, principals, teachers, coaches, secretaries, janitors, bus drivers and volunteers.
In Wyoming people don’t need a permit to carry a concealed firearm. But state law has prohibited guns in schools in the past, and the only person in schools who is armed currently is a school resource officer, a cop assigned to the school. The bill’s sponsors believe that self-defense is a fundamental right and that adopting rules to allow the possession of firearms by employees with a valid concealed carry permit will increase safety and security in schools.
Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen disagrees: “Even the most carefully crafted policy can’t prevent human error, and when it comes to weapons the costs are just too great for mistakes.”
Lt. Cole Nethercott of the Jackson Police Department said training would be essential.
“I believe that properly trained and armed personnel can stop active shooter situations nearly immediately whether that’s in a school, church, mall, wherever,” Nethercott said. “To me the key is training. If people have the proper training and follow the proper safeguards, they absolutely could prevent active shooter situations. It may take us five minutes to get there, and that’s a long time if people are shooting.”
Whalen said his officers’ response to a call at a school could change if employees carried weapons. He said he’d strongly recommend training with any employees authorized to carry, because if they don’t know who’s who “we will have no choice but to assume they are all bad guys.”
“Going into an armed situation with no knowledge of who the friendlies are and the bad guys are could be disastrous,” he said.
The bill mandates that employees undergo 24 hours of training, including live fire handgun training and scenario training. The employees will also have to document recurrent training of 12 hours with an approved instructor each year. The superintendent will be responsible for notifying all law enforcement agencies of the names of the employees who receive permission to carry firearms.
After reading the bill Nethercott said he had more questions about who would do the training and what the standards would be. He said the police department would partner with the district to help train individuals and know who they are.
“If it’s not good training it could be somewhat negligent to do something like that,” Nethercott said. “But the evidence shows that active shooter situations come to an end very quickly when confronted with a good guy with a gun — whether that be a school employee or law enforcement. If it’s my child there and someone could stop the shooting, I don’t care who it is.”
The district’s board of trustees has a policy on weapons in school that was adopted in September 2003. It says that “the possession and/or use of deadly weapons or objects used as weapons are detrimental to the welfare and safety of students and school personnel” and that “deadly weapons or objects used as weapons are prohibited” at school activities, in school vehicles or within the boundaries of property used for the education of students.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman said that while she understood the intent of the bill was to provide a safe environment for schools, she wasn’t sure allowing guns in district schools was necessary in Teton County.
“In my personal opinion, I don’t know that this will make students and colleagues feel more or less safe than they already are,” Chapman said. “We have a lot of town and county support around our schools, and our buildings are secure during the day so that staff and students can stay focused on the business at hand.”
Nethercott said that “there might be some legitimate benefit to that idea for outlying schools” like Kelly, Alta and Moran elementary schools that are “a long way from law enforcement.”
Trustee Annie Band said she grew up shooting and is the daughter of an expert Marine marksman. But she believes weapons have no place in school, calling it “a terrible idea.”
“I don’t have a problem with people who aren’t felons, drug users or criminals owning certain weapons for hunting or for pleasure if they are keeping them locked up safely,” Band said. “I was raised in an atmosphere of total respect and gun safety with a father who was very comfortable with all kinds of firearms. But putting guns in schools is not going to help anything. This is one subject that is completely non-negotiable in my mind.”
Whalen said he supports “hardening the potential target” instead of allowing employees to carry concealed weapons.
“The school district does a great job by supporting the school resource officer program, and I consider that a significant way to help provide security to students and staff,” he said. “I also think conducting annual security audits at the schools can be helpful.
“But,” Whalen said, “with those things said, I must also say that if someone is bound and determined to bring violence into a school, more than likely they will be able to do it, unless we want to set our schools up like prisons, and I don’t think anyone is advocating for that. If we continue to move in the direction of making our schools safer through target hardening initiatives, I’m fairly certain we can reach a level of comfort that is utilitarian.”