By Jonathan Gallardo
Gillette News Record
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE — Duncan Davidson was at Sage Valley Junior High on that day in November when another student brought guns and ammunition to the school, allegedly with the intent to kill.
“I was scared for my life,” he said. “That’s why I’m pro arming teachers.”
He said this opinion is shared by many of his fellow students.
“As someone who was there, I would have felt much safer and less fearful if I knew that someone was armed there besides the police, before the police got there.”
Davidson was one of 26 people who spoke Monday night at the third and final listening session about the district looking into a new state policy adopted by the Wyoming Legislature in its 2017 session that would allow school districts to arm teachers and other school employees.
Since the law took effect, two school districts in Wyoming have adopted it. Several other districts are looking into it as well, including Campbell County.
There were 22 people who spoke in the first two sessions, and most of them were opposed to arming teachers. On Monday, most of the 26 who spoke were in favor of arming teachers to some extent.
Four police officers spoke, and all of them were in favor of arming teachers.
Gillette Police Cpl. Jay Johnson said people should stop putting law enforcement on a pedestal.
“We shouldn’t be putting the police as this Seal Team Six type ideology that they’re going to come save all your bacon because it’s a magical thing,” he said.
The only difference between a police officer and a math teacher, Johnson said, is that an officer has gone through a rigorous selection process, then is given tools and training.
“They’re just people that have been screened and selected and trained,” Johnson said. “Why can’t we apply that exact same model to other good folks? It’s not rocket science. You take a working model that’s existed in law enforcement for decades and apply it to a different group of people.”
When people do terrible things, Johnson added, the solution lies within other people doing great things.
Jesse Lile, a former police officer, said that every minute between the 911 call and the police responding to a school is a minute “that the kids don’t have.”
“For 10 years, I was the guy that would go to this call,” he said. “Best case scenario, I would want the staff armed before I got there.”
“Cowering in a corner” and hoping the shooter misses is not an option, he said.
“Let’s say the problem is happening right now, and the rounds are going off, people are getting shot,” Lile said. “I guarantee you a person with a gun can fix that problem right then.”
Police Cpl. Dan Stroup said people don’t attack police departments or gun stores “because there’s armed people within.”
“If there’s even a perception of an armed teacher or an armed janitor or an armed administrator, it lessens the likelihood that that facility’s going to be attacked,” he said.
Officer Jerry Fitzner said he’s heard people say that it’s unfair to ask teachers to carry a gun.
“It’s unfair to ask anyone to put their life on the line,” he said. “But sometimes it just has to be done. It has to go beyond fairness.”
If a school has a certain number of staff who are armed, Fitzner said, an aggressor won’t “know what they will potentially face in the school,” making it “a much scarier situation” for the aggressor.
If arming educators was the answer, Vicki Swenson said, national education organizations would be in favor of it. But they’re not.
Spring Wilkins said the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association both don’t recommend arming teachers, and the U.S. Department of Education has said that “allowing civilians to carry guns in schools is not a sound security practice.”
Wilkins said there isn’t evidence that arming teachers will effectively decrease the risk of a mass shooting.
“What is important to remember is we had a successful intervention by an unarmed civilian,” she said. “It can work, it did work, right here, where we live.”
She said research shows that when “you add guns to a violent situation, you increase the risk.”
“If we enact policies that feel good, feel right, feel safe but result in the increase of danger, what have we accomplished?” Wilkins asked.
Peggy Whittlesey, a retired teacher, said children “have a right to know they’re safe,” and that putting guns in schools will only make them more fearful.
“What if we have a problem and a teacher accidentally shoots a child? What are you going to do?” she asked. “That to me is like opening up a can of worms that you can never put the lid back on.”
Parent Tanya Krummreich said the schools are already safe.
“We just really need to take a step back and realize arming everyone doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “(Students) aren’t going into war every day in the schools.”
“Let’s not turn our schools into war zones, thinking that they are (war zones) already,” she added.
Thunder Basin Associate Principal Mike Daniel said he’s responsible for keeping more than a thousand students safe every day.
“If this is going on in my building, I’m calling somebody with a gun, and I hope they bring a lot of friends,” he said.
He said that if law enforcement said one of his teachers could carry a gun, he would feel comfortable with that decision because he trusts their judgment.
Bus driver Bob Hollander pointed out that there are more than a hundred bus routes in the district, but there are no metal detectors or school resource officers on those buses.
“It’s real nice when you can protect the school, but what about before the kids get to school?” he asked. “We go all the way to the Montana border. We’re 50 miles away from the police department. How are we going to protect those kids?”
Kimberly Harding, a paraeducator in the school district, said people shouldn’t leave the students out of the conversation, no matter their age.
“These kids are very aware of what’s going on, and I think we need to talk to them,” she said. “Ask their opinion on how they would feel about having their teacher with a gun.”
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, said the status quo does not work, and that advertising schools as gun-free zones is a “failed policy.”
“What you’re advertising is a soft target,” he said. “You’re telling kids, ‘This is a place where guns aren’t allowed, and you can go in and you can shoot people if you’re crazy enough to do it, and you’re not going to have any resistance.’”
He said that while he’s thankful that the Sage Valley incident was handled without violence, “what happens if that kid starts shooting? Who else in that school is going to come to the defense? You’re sitting ducks.”
Arming educators is a “viable option,” he said, and one that makes more sense than the alternatives.
“You could get metal detectors, you could hire more SRO officers, but you won’t do that. That costs money,” he said, citing the statewide education funding deficit.
Ernie Bishop said that the last thing he ever wants to see is a teacher taking a life, but that he supports arming teachers because “I’m for protecting our young people and our teachers.”
He added that arming teachers “won’t necessarily mean we stop things from happening.”
“There is no win-win scenario,” he said. “If someone has skills and they intend to do harm, they’re probably going to get some licks in before we respond, even if we’re on the spot.”
Stroup and many others said this conversation is a sad one but also one that is very necessary.
“This is Gillette, you shouldn’t have these problems, but we do. It’s society, we have to step up, accept it,” he said. “What’s important to us? Our feelings, or our children’s safety?”
Although Monday night was the last of the three listening sessions, the conversation doesn’t stop there. Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer said the school district will continue to seek public input in other ways, like a survey.