The Saratoga Sun -

School safety subject of summit

Education officials, law enforcement and students from several states meet in Cheyenne for one of four nationwide listening sessions focused on keeping students safe


August 15, 2018

Mike Armstrong

Left to right, Peter Michaels, Jane Goff, Stacey Kern and Danny Glick speaking at round table 2.

The Federal Commission on School Safety held its third listening session of four starting at 1 p.m. on Aug. 7 in Cheyenne to listen to speakers from several western states with many rural communities. Previous listening sessions have been held in Washington D.C. and Lexington, KY.

In March 2018, President Donald J. Trump appointed U.S. Secretary of Education (ED) Betsy DeVos to lead the Federal Commission on School Safety. Other members appointed by President Trump  to the Commission in March of this year are: Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Kirstjen Nielsen.

The Federal Commission representatives that met in Cheyenne were Deputy Secretary of ED Mick Zais; HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Chief Medical Officer Anita Everett M.D and DOJ Public Liaison Jessica Hart.

According to the ED, the Commission has been charged with quickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school.

Representatives from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming were in attendance.

"There is a lot of expertise here," Zais said as he started roundtable one. "We are here to talk about school safety, so lets stay focused on that."

Jillian Balow, Superintendent of Wyoming Public Instruction, said when asked to start the forum, "I also want to thank all the local representatives from the school districts and law enforcement who are here, because thats really the crux of any initiative we have."

Balow said she had been an educator for a remote school district for eight years and had perspective on the challenges of what rural communities need.

"One message that I think I want to be clear about, is school safety isn't a gun control issue, although it sometimes goes there," Balow said. "With school safety we are talking about preparedness, prevention, crisis management and student well being."

She said the Wyoming representatives at the roundtables all cared about school safety and the well being of every student in the state.

"We work together in a partnership on a daily basis and we are fortunate in this state to do that," Balow said.

Delbert McOmie, Director of Wyoming State Construction Department, said local school districts manage their own school building although the state does supply funding for construction and maintaining buildings. He said ten percent of the funding for maintenance can be used for school security.

"The one thing we have learned, you really need flexibility for the districts to implement procedures and you need to look at each individual building," McOmie said. "The rural nature of Wyoming, we literally have some schools that have two students and other schools that can have 1,500 and we really need that flexibility for what is best for each school and put the dollars where it makes sense."

Affie Ellis, Wyoming State Senator from District 8, said the Wyoming legislature is having serious talks about arming teachers not only with guns, but with non-lethal methods such as pepper spray. She said there was much to think through before using such methods

"I think it is important we find ways to make school safety work instead of excuses to not act," Ellis said.

She said there were training programs that could be applied, but the key was to take in consideration of the different schools districts needs. It is not a one size fits all in Wyoming. Ellis told the commission that parents needed to be included on what they felt should be put into action concerning their school district's safety needs.

Roundtable one finished at 2 p.m and roundtable two started at 2:15 p.m.

The Safe2Tell program has been very successful since it was started in late Oct 2016 Peter Michaels, Wyoming Attorney General said.

"Suicide prevention has been what Safe2Tell has been successful in preventing," Michaels said. "We are really high on the program and I truly believe that this program helps-and if a state is not working with this program, I think they are making a big mistake."

"Our policies have to be flexible to keep up with the ever changing landscape for school safety as schools are a part of the community," Boyd Brown, Superintendent of Laramie County District 1, said. "The open sharing of data is where the federal government can help us."

Boyd said his district has nine school resource officers. He said the sharing of information was important between law enforcement and school officials.

"We also have to deal with things that are age appropriate," Boyd said. He pointed out there is a different circumstance when you have a football team dealing with a situation versus kindergartners. Boyd qualified that common sense had to prevail under all circumstances and students should not put other students at risk with their actions.

He said his school district is putting forth a media blitz of "If you see something, say something."

Guy Cameron, Director of Wyoming Homeland Security, said school safety came down to prevention, protection and recovery. He said it was critical to have a layered approach to school safety.

Two Wyoming law enforcement officials spoke to the Commission. Becky Juschka is a Peace Officer with the Cheyenne Police department and serves as a school resource officer and Danny Glick, Sheriff of Laramie County, both said law enforcement working with the school district made a difference.

Glick said he was excited about the Commission coming to listen to the plight of states with many rural communities because too often mandates come from the federal government without considering their effects on states like Wyoming.

Stacy Kern, Special Services Director for Carbon County School District 1, told the Commission mental health services were essential to schools staying safe.

"It isn't just about talking about mental health issues, but doing something about it," Kern said. "We know from a 19 year old study on kindergartners and two of the biggest factors that came out of it is to ensure teacher's success is social and emotional health. School cannot just be about reading and math any more."

She said schools face a crisis in resources as far as mental health services go.

"In our schools in Wyoming it is incredibly difficult to get school psychologists to come to our state," Kern said. "In almost every school district, there is an open spot for one school psychologist unfilled."

In Carbon County, Kern said, she reached out to the Rawlins police department to say the school district had funds for resource officer.

"The local police department said they would love to, but we can't fill two positions we have open now," Kern recounted. "So school resource officers are difficult to come by."

Kern felt Wyoming had good funding for special needs services once identified, but the funding for prevention was needed also to help the student before a problem actually has to happen.

"I think another crisis we are sort of facing is enormous pressure of time our students are academically engaged from start to finish and a lot of the other key life skills take a back seat or aren't focused on at all," Kern said. "We need to make sure that we have the resource of time to ensure that social and emotional awareness is happening for our children."

The roundtables ended and afterwards there was a forum where the public put forth their views. There were 25 speakers, but the four students who spoke received most of the applause.

Mike Armstrong

The School Safety Commission listens to speakers from different western states.

"My generation has grown up in the wake of the Columbine Massacre and watched the Sandy Hook shooting unfold," Vera Berger, a student from New Mexico said. "We were hopeful after Sandy Hook in 2012 things would change, but since then there have been over 250 shootings and little political action. My generation has had sort of a collective realization that our fears of being shot at school is, no way baseless."

She concluded, "Fostering a culture of collectiveness and establishing effective social intervention policies backed by federal funding for implementation, will help me feel safe when I go to school. Our greatest fear as a student in school should be a forgotten assignment-not that of a shooter. And we should be planning a prom date, not that of an escape route."


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