At forum, public opinion split on arming school staff


Community members with a range of personal opinions on guns in schools posed multiple what-if scenarios during a Monday public forum, which drew 150 residents.

What if an armed teacher or custodian is having a really bad day and snaps? What if an active shooter opens fire in a school and it takes law enforcement several minutes to arrive? What if an angry student gets their hands on a teacher’s gun?

“We can all come up with a thousand what-ifs — it’s very easy to do,” said Joel Torres, one of 23 local residents who spoke at the forum.

“I came here tonight very sure of what I believed, but after hearing both sides ... I’m torn,” Torres said, adding later, “I still think I am for arming teachers.”

Those who spoke Monday evening were split about 50/50 on whether trained staff should be allowed to carry concealed firearms in Powell schools. Eight residents spoke in favor of arming staff, while nine opposed it; the remaining six either did not specify their personal views or said they were in the middle.

An earlier survey — which drew more than 600 responses from local residents and 190 staffers — found that nearly 67 percent of community members and close to 64 percent of school employees believe arming staff would make the district’s buildings safer.

As the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees considers whether to move forward with a concealed carry policy, they held the forum to get community input and information to help trustees make a decision.

“One thing that we can all agree on is this is an emotional issue,” said Greg Borcher, Powell school board chairman. “It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you might be on, it brings out strong emotions in people.”

The nearly hour-and-a-half forum remained civil, and Jay Curtis, superintendent of the Powell school district, told attendees he was impressed.

“That is not always the case in every community,” Curtis said toward the end of the gathering. “I commend you for that.”

Diverse views

While most residents who addressed the board Monday spoke as parents or grandparents, one Powell High School student shared her thoughts, saying she feels schools would be safer if teachers were allowed to carry concealed firearms.

“It’s very nerve-wracking coming to school every day and looking at my classmates, and wondering if somebody is going to stand up in the middle of class and start gunning down everybody in the room,” said Lauren Lejeune, a PHS sophomore, adding that she’s also concerned about someone coming into the school with a firearm.

“Our airports, banks, government offices, and many other places are armed with guards who carry guns. It confuses me how our school doesn’t protect its students with armed teachers,” Lejeune said.

She noted the district’s school resource officer must go to multiple schools.

Other residents emphasized the importance of ongoing training and psychological evaluations for armed staff members.

Resident Scott Feyhl said he was concerned about training, and referenced a study of police groups across the country that researched questions like, “How often does a trained policeman hit the target and under what circumstances?”

He said two-thirds of the shots they fire don’t hit the assailant.

“The best percentage in the country right now in any police department is about 32 percent,” Feyhl said. “... when you arm the assailant, that percentage goes down to 13 percent.”

He noted police officers undergo years of extensive training and practice.

“I think it’s well worth considering their success when you consider giving that same task to teachers who may not have the kind of training and experience that a police department has,” Feyhl said.

He noted that armed staff would likely be carrying a handgun.

“It’s pretty hard to conceal an AR-15,” Feyhl said. “The killing power of most pistols is a mere fraction of what an AR-15 can do ... you’re up against odds that are just stacked against you to start with.”

Luke Robertson, who teaches at Westside Elementary School, said he’s against a concealed carry policy for a lot of reasons and asked what kind of environment it could create in local schools.

“... I worry about those times when there’s not an active shooter in the school; we have those guns in those schools every minute of every day,” Robertson said, adding, “one mistake is all it would take.”

His wife, Anna Hardy, said she’s concerned about the risks of having firearms in schools.

“No matter how much we check into people’s backgrounds and no matter how much we try to vet the people that we arm, they’re still human, and so much goes wrong in the human world,” Hardy said. “And so maybe we could control a little bit by not putting guns in the school and around our children.”

Several speakers, however, said they’re concerned schools are a soft target for shooters.

“I think teachers should be allowed to defend their children,” said Doug Kirkham.

He said the Cody school district’s draft policy to allow concealed carry is very comprehensive. Kirkham encouraged the Powell board to move forward with a policy, even though it will be hard.

“The easy thing is to just shut it down,” he said.

Judy Braten said she is “100 percent in favor of well-trained, armed staff in the schools.”

“In the four to five minutes minutes it will take uniformed officers to arrive on the scene, a lot of damage can be done by a shooter,” Braten said. “If somebody is shooting back, it should buy time for the officers and law enforcement to arrive.”

She said parents and grandparents would help raise money to help secure local schools.

“Let’s replace the gun-free zone signs with signs that read, ‘This school and these students are protected by Smith & Wesson,’” Braten added.

Several speakers also referenced past mass shootings in America, including last month’s school shooting in Florida.

“If one of those teachers had a gun in that school where all of those 17 kids that died, how many would have been alive today?” Jeanie McJunkin asked.

A significant decision

Multiple speakers emphasized the significance of the decision facing school board trustees, noting that they trust the board with their children, grandchildren or spouses who are in Powell schools everyday.

Karen Roles said that as a parent, she would be devastated if her child died at the hands of a school shooter. She said she would blame everyone — God, the district, the government, and the shooter.

“But if my child were harmed or killed by an accidental or deliberate shooting from a gun that was brought into the school because of this policy, I have to be honest, there’s only one place I would lay blame — with all due respect, I would blame the people who put the policy into place,” Roles said.

She said America is in a massive social experiment, and “we’re going to find out very soon whether schools are safer with guns or without. We already know that more children die from accidental loaded firearms every year than die in school shootings …”

Scott Shoopman said it’s a fast-paced issue, and one people didn’t have to worry about decades ago.

“Unfortunately for you, you have to worry about it ... I don’t envy your position to make this decision,” Shoopman said.

After the 9/11 attacks, well-trained individuals were cleared to carry concealed weapons on planes, and Shoopman said other passengers don’t even realize they have a concealed firearm.

“That could be something that could be adopted within the school system,” Shoopman said.

Terri Meyer encouraged school board trustees to take their time.

“I believe this is too rushed of a decision,” Meyer said. “I believe there is not enough proven data, and so there’s no way to make a decision that is not at least based partially on emotion, and I don’t believe that any proper decision can be based on that.”

At the end of Monday’s forum, Chairman Borcher thanked everyone for attending and sharing their input. The school board also is accepting written comments at the Central Administration Office through Friday.

The board is slated to decide at its April 11 meeting whether or not to move forward with considering a concealed-carry policy.

At the end of the forum, Superintendent Curtis outlined some of the safety measures already in place in local schools, including secure vestibules and a visitor management system that creates a single-point of entry. All staff are undergoing ALICE training — which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — and all students will be trained in the future. The district also is looking at strengthening glass in the schools and making doors more secure.