In the wake of another school shooting the debate continues about school safety in Teton County School District No. 1. While students around the country are walking out to protest school safety next week, adults are talking about how to best protect schools — with differing strategies that range from familiarizing staff with the sound of gunfire to further securing buildings and arming teachers.
Area schools haven’t been immune to gun threats. On March 1 Teton School District 401 in Teton Valley reported an unsubstantiated tip that someone was bringing a weapon to school, and in February, Teton High School in Driggs received an anonymous gun threat that prompted law enforcement to patrol the school. In January Jackson Hole High School, Summit High School, Jackson Hole Middle School and Colter Elementary School were briefly secured due to a threat made on social media.
These incidents, and the school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, have prompted some — including President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association — to suggest arming teachers could increase school safety.
The Riverton Ranger reported that most staff members at Fremont County School District No. 1 in Lander are in favor of allowing employees to carry firearms on school property. The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported that at least four other district boards are in various stages of discussing policies that would let qualified teachers carry guns: Park County School District 6 in Cody, Uinta County School District No. 1 in Evanston, Campbell County School District No. 1 in Gilette and Natrona County School District No. 1 in Casper.
Wyoming State Statue 21-3-132 was passed by the Legislature last year and allows local trustees to adopt rules and regulations for the possession of firearms by employees with concealed-carry permits on district property. At the time 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.
Despite the actions of some school boards, Teton County School District No. 1 board Chairwoman Kate Mead said she doesn’t think voting to arm teachers is likely here.
“I don’t see any of our faculty wanting to be a security officer, which is in essence what you are asking them to do,” Mead said.
The district likely wouldn’t be able to get insurance from the same insurer if it voted to arm teachers, Mead said.
She disagrees with a statewide approach of not funding upgrades to school security and giving the OK to arm teachers instead. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2013, Wyoming did a study of school security across the state with the intention of funding schools yearly to upgrade security. When revenue tanked, Mead said, that idea fell off.
“Now the idea is just, ‘Arm your teachers,’ which is not an effective approach to school safety,” she said
The Jackson Hole Tea Party believes differently, sending an email on Feb. 23 saying that “mass murderers are only stopped by armed defenders” and that gun-free zones aren’t effective.
Mead said the district will instead be looking at other ways of beefing up security, even if it causes inconveniences for staff and students. District staff is also thinking about ways to secure outlying schools that are farther from law enforcement. Currently, all schools have locked inner doors that require visitors to be buzzed through to gain access.
“I have to say that, reluctantly, after one of these horrible tragedies, we really look at security again,” Mead said. “We’re going to look at everything, once again. We’re going to work really hard on the low-hanging fruit stuff. There’s a lot of it out there.”
Quick fixes can include things like cement barriers so that cars can’t drive into schools — a feature that used to exist before it caused problems with snowplowing — making sure all classrooms can lock from the inside and blocking windows on classroom doors with bulletproof film. The film Mead is aware of wouldn’t stop a weapon like the AR-15 rifle used in the Parkland school shooting, but it would stop a handgun. USA Today reported that sales of bulletproof doors, windows and even backpacks boom in the wake of school shootings.
School safety measures are also being implemented in Munger Mountain Elementary School, which is under construction. Bulletproof glass will be put in to start, saving the need to retrofit down the road.
Other options that are less likely to happen but still might be considered include metal detectors and more school resource officers, or SROs. But at a time when schools aren’t getting more funding for their block grants from the state, more security officers would mean cutting other programs.
Teton County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Carr said law enforcement is constantly training for active shooter situations, learning from incidents that happen elsewhere and partnering to support schools. They work with students and staff to help them make the informed choice of whether to evacuate — and how — or barricade in the event of an attack.
“You can’t plan for every event and, generally, if you do plan the plans go out the window in the first minute and a half,” Carr said. “But it’s critical as to what happens prior to our arrival. The days of setting up a perimeter and waiting for backup are long over, and in an active shooter situation officers are immediately sent to engage the shooter. But what happens before we get there is really critical. The most important thing to do is to not stop thinking.”
Past training included familiarizing staff with the sound of gunfire during in-service days at Jackson Hole High School when Carr was an SRO there and Summit High School this year. Confirmation bias often causes witnesses to shootings to think the sound is some other noise, not a gun.
“If you’re in the same hallway it’s pretty obvious,” Carr said. “But the next hallway over, or in the rotunda, it’s a very different sound. School acoustics are different. It’s really hard, but if we can provide that so they have an idea, that’s super important. It’s pretty invaluable.”
In the meantime, the district will continue to practice active shooter drills.
“That can be terrifying for children, but by the same token I think you just have to have them comfortable knowing what to do,” Mead said. “Parents get freaked out and I don’t blame them. I was too. It’s scary.”