Educators, district administrators, law enforcement and public officials from across the state came together for a summit in Cheyenne Wednesday to discuss school safety.
Sessions centered on school facilities, school-based mental health support and school coordination with law enforcement. This was the first School Safety Summit hosted by the Wyoming Department of Education, but it’s not a new conversation for the state.
In 2013 Governor Matt Mead established a School Safety and Security Task Force, and in 2014 the Wyoming Legislature appropriated $9 million to better secure schools. In 2015 the School Facilities Department worked with an independent consultant -- Facility Engineering Associates (FEA) -- to complete a comprehensive security assessment of K-12 school facilities throughout the state to help prioritize how to spend that $9 million in each district.
But only $5 million of those funds have been spent according to Delbert McOmie. As the director of the State Construction Department he oversees school facilities. During the school facilities breakout session at the summit, McOmie asked participants why, given the critical need to better secure schools, had districts not spent the remaining $4 million.
“How can we better improve that process so that we don’t let statutes or policies stand in the way of getting that money out the door and having schools implement their plans?,” asked McOmie.
District administrators, like Sweetwater District #1 Director of Facilities Dan Selloreli, said they are making security upgrades, but are using other funds because they are less restrictive. As a part of an effort to improve school security, the legislature amended regulations to allow schools to spend up to 10 percent of their major maintenance budgets on school security. Selloreli said those funds are less cumbersome to use, whereas the $9 million can only be used on projects that fall into eight priority areas. For example, those funds could be used to install locks on classroom doors, but in some cases that requires a new door, which wouldn’t be covered. Selloreli said he could complete that whole project with major maintenance money, which is much simpler from a paperwork perspective.
The trouble with that strategy is then those funds aren’t available for non-security related projects. “The legislature needs to let us use it,” Selloreli said referring to the remaining $4 million, “flexibly on projects identified in the assessment as a security issue.”
Lander Middle School Assistant Principal Kevin Ley called attention to the particular challenges that come with Wyoming’s remote nature. He said it’s difficult to maintain security systems because service technicians are all the way in Denver, which makes upgrades time-consuming and more expensive.
Jaraun Dennis, Technology Director for Uinta #1 in Evanston, said it’s been hard to find contractors to fill bids to upgrade school vestibules because they’re tied up in the Salt Lake area.
McOmie said the state is looking at ways to facilitate agreements between districts to help strengthen their bargaining power with contractors.
In the session on mental health, educators said Wyoming’s rural nature also makes it challenging for students to access psychiatrists and psychologists. Schools can’t pay them enough to compete with private practice earnings. One suggestion was to utilize telehealth to connect students with mental health practitioners remotely.
Patrick Flores turned 17 at the summit. As a student who has experienced intense bullying he said participating in the conversation felt more important than celebrating his birthday. He said there is a critical need for more school counselors.
“Every time I’d go down there they’d always be occupied,” said Flores referring to the counseling office. “When someone goes down there they want to have someone to talk to. When you go down there and that person is not available it sets it off entirely. They should have more counselors on hand.”
Flores said there should be at least one counselor dedicated to each school, as opposed to serving several schools within a district.
Flores was the only student to attend the summit, but he said it was helpful to hear teachers and school administrators call for more mental health support for students. When he attended the session on school and law enforcement coordination, and he was also surprised to hear that not all schools have School Resource Officers. SROs, as they’re commonly referred to, are sworn law enforcement who specialize in safety at schools.
Funding for SROs is not included in the state block grant leaving it up to district administrators and school boards to figure out how to pay for the position and in many cases they can’t.
In his closing remarks to summit participants, McOmie said school safety requires a layered approach, and encouraged everyone present, including educators, law enforcement officers and public officials, to emphasize community collaborations and comprehensive support for students.
But the solutions and best-practices discussed at the summit all require resources, which educators and school board members are calling on the Wyoming Legislature to provide.