After the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, schools nationwide increased focus on security. Hundreds of school safety bills were proposed in state houses across the country. Spending on security systems skyrocketed. Wyoming was no exception. Just a few months after Newtown, Governor Matt Mead launched a task force to look at the safety and security of Wyoming’s schools and recommend improvements. More than a year later, Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports on where that effort stands.
“Okay. Here’s the deal,” says Russell Clark, inside a government complex in Cheyenne. “You are going to be the suspicious person.”
Clark hands a fake blue handgun to a woman named Melody Warren who tucks it into her waistband—out of sight.
“When you walk in the door, pat one time,” Clark says. “Okay?”
Clark is the training coordinator for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security. Today, he’s training educators on how to spot suspicious behavior. He asks Warren to exhibit some questionable behaviors and tests whether others in the class can pick her out from a crowd.
Clark, a military veteran with a high-and-tight haircut and a Western Pennsylvania accent, typically trains first responders, but has led sessions like this statewide in recent months as part of Wyoming’s School Safety Initiative. Clark points to recent school shootings as reason this training is important for educators now.
“If they can just possibly see what’s happening ahead of time, they may be able to prevent one of these incidents from happening, because they’re aware of what’s going on,” Clark says.
After the deadly 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, schools nationwide increased focus on security. Hundreds of school safety bills were proposed in state houses across the country. Spending on security systems skyrocketed. Wyoming was no exception. Just a few months after Newtown, Governor Matt Mead launched a task force to look at the safety and security of Wyoming’s schools and recommend improvements. More than a year later, Clark’s class is among the fruits of that effort.
One participant, Cynthia Selk, works at Baggs Elementary in Cheyenne—the same school she attended as a child. Selk says things have changed over the years. The lure of energy industry work in the area means unfamiliar faces are far more common.
“When I was in school, everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody,” says Selk. “Nowadays, with the transient community and different people in the area, that’s not the way it is anymore, so training like this helps us, as school personnel, to cover that gap.”
Clark’s four-hour lesson touches on everything from body language to bomb threats. This is just one class offered to educators under Wyoming’s school safety plan. Others include sessions on how to handle in-school shootings and mental health first aid. While there hasn’t been a school shooting in the state in two decades, Homeland Security Deputy Director Larry Majerus says this effort is necessary.
“In Wyoming, we have been surrounded by states that have had tragic events—tragedies that have kept a focus on school safety in general,” Majerus says.
Homeland Security’s emergency response planning is made possible by several hundred thousand dollars in federal grants. But it’s only one half of the larger initiative. The other half is physical security—the actual design and construction of school buildings. That’s everything from perimeter fences to security cameras.
From her office in Pine Bluffs, Laramie County School District Two’s Facilities Manager Kim Nelson points at a display of about a dozen video feeds on her desktop monitor. These are live shots from security cameras at Burns High School.
“I think it provides a measure of security and comfort for the staff and students—knowing that there is a record of what’s going on,” Nelson says.
Some leftover federal grant money from the Office of Homeland Security allowed the district to buy many of these cameras. Nelson says it’s fixed some serious lapses in security.
“We wanted to make sure that we got eyes on to the front entries of the buildings,” says Nelson. “That every school had at least the front entry covered.”
The project is just a small example of what’s to come. Next year, the School Facilities Department will use an estimated $1.8 in state funds to visit and assess every school in the state. It’s a big deal, says Director Bill Panos.
“That will involve the review of all 25 million square feet of space, 365 education facilities,” Panos says. “It’s probably one of the most extensive assessment efforts that we’ve ever undertaken.”
The assessments will be based on a new set of safety standards that Panos’ team developed. They include mandatory guidelines—like classroom doors that lock from the inside and voluntary ones—like bulletproof glass at entryways. Panos says, after assessing all of the buildings, his office will spend as much time and money as necessary to get every building up to the new code.
“All of our students throughout Wyoming deserve to have a safe and secure place to learn,” Panos says.
But statistics show schools are safer than they’ve ever been, despite increased focus of school shootings.
“The rate of homicide at school is between 100 and 1000 times lower than the homicide rate outside of school,” says James Cook, a social scientist at the University of Maine at Augusta.
He points to data from the National Center for School Statistics showing that school violence has actually gone down since the early nineties. Cook says the recent spending surge nationwide on school safety is well-intentioned, but not proportionate to actual risk.
“So, we’re spending $400 on a bulletproof white board that is never going to be used to block a bullet,” Cook says. “Why are we doing that? We’re doing that not because of real dangers, but because of real fears.”
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.