For years Wyoming lawmakers have been grappling with how to ensure kids are safe at school. In 2009 they passed anti-bullying legislation. Last year they granted districts the right to decide whether to arm teachers and staff as a defense against violent intruders.
This session school violence is once again on the docket. Senate File 64 — School Safety and Security —passed out of the Senate this week and is now being considered by the House. The legislation would require all districts to develop comprehensive school safety and security plans.
Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter Tennessee Watson sat down with Cheyenne Senator Affie Ellis to discuss why she thinks this legislation is needed.
Senator Affie Ellis: As a mom, I've got three kids who are in public school in Cheyenne. Since the first time I dropped my oldest kid off at kindergarten, I've seen the investments that my school district has made to improve security measures. And as I've traveled the state visiting with family and friends there is inconsistency in what safety measures are being implemented. On the [Senate] floor I did mention one instance where I was needing to use the restroom. The only place I could seem to find was a school. I thought my experience would be a difficult one getting in and it wasn't. I walked right in and was just motioned to go down the hallway. It was really a frightening moment thinking about the lack of security measures in that one particular building.
So really the intent of the bill is to create a base level of security measures so that we can tell any parent across the state that we've looked at this issue, and that we're requiring districts to have some pretty comprehensive safety plans.
Tennessee Watson: And so in terms of trying to create consistency across the state, what are the teeth that this bill has to ensure that that that would happen?
AE: Well we've worked a lot with the Department of Homeland Security. A number of years ago they developed a comprehensive report working with others in the school districts, with our state superintendent's office, and they developed a 300-page plan. And I believe it was sent to every school district. Depending on who you talk to, some people have looked at that plan. Others have just had it sitting on a shelf.
So really we tried to pull out a few of the best practices identified in some of those plans. We worked a lot with Homeland Security. One really important way that we can address safety is by giving kids some training. So really that's what the intent of the bill is: to give teachers, staff and students some options so that if a violent shooter [entered] their school they wouldn't automatically default to a lockdown mentality.
As I've done this training myself it's important to give people the permission and experience to practice what it means to evacuate, to barricade certain doors and to really start thinking about what they would do if an active shooter were penetrating their school.
It's absolutely an unpleasant thing. But I think it's what we should be thinking about and trying to prepare for and plan against. And so really that's the intent of the bill.
TW: I heard some caution about legislating safety and security when this should be an issue that school district should handle on their own.
AE: Right now school districts have some safety plans, but we're really trying to look at what's in those plans. And as I mentioned there's been a lot of great information that's developed over the decades about what an appropriate response is. Unfortunately, I think we've seen some districts who think that lockdown is the only appropriate response. So the bill that passed out of the Senate really has a handful of prescriptive measures that are best practices. And being on the Senate Education Committee I'm always mindful of trying to strike that right balance of not infringing too much on local control. I think this bill really gives districts the ability to write their own plans [and] to accommodate their own local needs. But the reality is, I remember the Columbine shooting and the number of shootings that continue to happen, and we can't wait for districts to maybe or maybe not take action. This bill really prompts districts to start doing that.
TW: I was struck by the fact that in the bill, where it starts to get into the details about safety and security plans, that interventions and mental health [were] at the top of the list. I'm wondering, did you place it at the top of the list on purpose?
AE: We had some discussion about it in the interim; how do you mandate to school districts that they prevent any kind of awful situation from happening? And that's a fair question. But there are some techniques, and there's been a lot of research and work done on how to identify some of these troubled students. Again in taking some of these training courses myself, there are signs that students exhibit. But you know we don't necessarily live in a culture that encourages students to be tattletales or tell on their classmates. And in thinking about a recent incident in Wyoming that was a game changer, one student speaking up.
So I think these trainings that students will be exposed to really kind of start shifting that mentality that you're not tattling on someone. Actually, it's a responsibility and an important thing to speak up if you see another classmate exhibiting some dangerous signs. And certainly, we want to make sure that teachers have that training as well. So I know there's concern about that language but I think that's critical for preventing those kinds of incidents from happening.
TW: And then beyond creating and submitting the plan, is there anything in this bill that holds districts to account when it comes to actually following through on what they've said they're going to do?
AE: You know my hope would be that it sparks a good conversation, not only among district administrators and school board members, but really community and parents and students. Again as someone who has children in public school, I think that people have wonderful ideas and so the development of these plans is a wonderful way to incorporate some of those talented resources we have in our communities with our parents, [and] with our students. So I understand concerns about the bill, but on the flip side of it I think it provides a tremendous opportunity for people to be really engaged and talking about what's right for kids. So hopefully this is a first step in giving parents assurances that the safety and security needs of their students are being met.
TW: Senator Ellis thank you for your time.
AE: Thank you for your interest in this issue. It's important.