Guns in schools: Powell district to survey community

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Would Powell schools be more or less safe if employees were armed?

The Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees wants to hear local residents’ opinions as trustees discuss the possibility of allowing employees to carry concealed weapons in school buildings.

The school district released an online community-wide survey today (Tuesday). The survey can be accessed at: https://goo.gl/ruSGJP.

Since Wyoming lawmakers cleared the way for school districts to allow concealed carry on K-12 campuses this year, some school boards in the state — including Cody and Meeteetse — have discussed the issue.

Powell school board chairman Greg Borcher said in October that the board would address the topic “if and when” an employee asked to carry a gun in school; an employee made such a request and the school board discussed it during an executive session on Nov. 7, Borcher said. Under the School Safety and Security Act approved by state lawmakers earlier this year, the names of employees authorized to carry a concealed weapon are confidential; that’s why the employee’s request was discussed in an executive session closed to the public, said Borcher.

Now that a request has been made, the school board will consider whether to keep its current weapons policy — which bans guns in Powell schools — or vote to look at options for a new policy, Borcher said.

Before deciding how to proceed, trustees want to hear from employees in the district, parents of students and the Powell community. A separate survey was sent to staff members in the district on Monday. Borcher said he’d also be interested in hearing Powell High School students’ thoughts on the issue.

“One of the things that is really important to this board is that anything that we do is a reflection of our school and community needs and values,” said Jay Curtis, superintendent of Park County School District No. 1.

If surveys show that 40 percent of people in the district want the board to look at a new policy and 60 percent say no, “we’re just probably not going to look at it,” Curtis said. It’s essential that “our community has a voice in it,” he said.

Curtis said he’s proud of how the Powell community supports its schools, and he and Borcher said it’s important to have a civil discourse on the issue.

“We don’t want this to be an issue that divides our community,” Curtis said, adding, “It’s really important that we maintain that civility and keep an open mind and try and be empathetic to others’ positions.”

The survey will remain open for the next several weeks, and the Powell school board plans to discuss responses during a work session in January, Borcher said.

“I would encourage our community to take part in that survey, rather than calling individual board members to express their views,” Curtis said. “It’s really important that we have all of the feedback in one spot, and all of the board members have access to the same data. … We want a community-wide response on this.”

If school board trustees vote to proceed with a new weapons policy, Borcher said they would work with the district’s attorney Tracy Copenhaver, Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt and Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.

The board also would discuss qualifications, requirements, the application/approval process, training, equipment, insurance and other costs.

“We will leave no proverbial rock unturned before we decide on a policy,” Borcher said.

Both the Cody and Meeteetse school boards are discussing whether to adopt policies allowing employees to carry concealed weapons in their districts. Curtis served as the Meeteetse Schools superintendent until coming to Powell in July; Curtis said that while in Meeteetse, he was strongly in favor of House Bill 194, which became the School Safety and Security Act. After a shooting like Sandy Hook, “no words can describe how isolated you feel” in a rural community like Meeteetse, Curtis said. The nearest law enforcement officer may be 30 miles away from Meeteetse.

“Powell’s a very different community,” Curtis said. “We have a phenomenal police force. … You can’t drive around Powell without seeing a police officer.”

He said the school district and Powell Police Department have a great partnership, and a wonderful school resource officer (SRO). The SRO carries a gun in local schools.

Unlike previous gun bills proposed in the Wyoming Legislature, House Bill 194 gave local school boards control over whether to allow guns on their campuses and, if so, the authority to decide who can carry.

“That’s always what I advocated for,” Curtis said. “We don’t want it open to everyone. We want local boards to have control, so it is a reflection of their community needs and values.”

The Legislature left it up to local school districts to decide where guns are allowed on their campuses. For example, the Powell school district could authorize employees to carry concealed weapons at its elementary school in Clark, which is isolated, while continuing to ban guns at other local schools.

Borcher has told his fellow board members there will need to be a convincing argument that a new policy will make kids in local schools safer.

He said the board will take its time looking at the issue and trustees’ conversations will be in public meetings.

“We’re not going to rush into this and make a quick decision on anything,” Borcher said. “We’ll make sure that all seven board members feel comfortable in the decision that they’re making.”

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