Every time a school shooting occurs in America, educators across the country are forced to ask: “What if it happens here?”
In Powell, leaders are going a step beyond asking “what if” and also considering: “How do we prevent it from happening here?”
A new comprehensive school safety and security plan for Park County School District No. 1 addresses those questions, as local educators make every effort to keep students safe.
“We are placing a heavy emphasis on prevention,” said Superintendent Jay Curtis.
“However, we also are as up to date as a school can be on the hardening of our schools, everything short of taking the step of actually arming employees.”
While some districts in Wyoming — including Cody — have allowed trained employees to carry a concealed firearm, the Powell district chose to adopt a school safety and security guide that addresses five different pillars. Those include building safety, access and protocol; employee and student training; social/emotional and mental health; emergency preparedness and crisis management; and interagency agreements and coordination.
The district adopted the new plan over the summer, ahead of the start of the school year. But students and parents may not have noticed significant differences.
“A lot of the changes are behind the scenes that they won’t see,” Curtis said.
One change will be very evident: The addition of a second school resource officer (SRO). The Powell Police Department hopes to implement a second SRO in the first part of next year (see related story).
“Badged law enforcement presence in our schools is the largest deterrent to someone who decides they may want to do harm,” Curtis said.
As a police officer, an SRO undergoes rigorous training and has the ability to immediately communicate and coordinate with other law enforcement, Curtis noted.
The school district also has given every Powell police officer access to all of its buildings.
“So if there were an emergency, they can walk through whatever the closest door is,” Curtis said.
He said Powell schools and the police department are creating “an extremely strong bond.”
Law enforcement helped district staff put together the safety plan, spending “many hours going over every aspect of our schools,” said Greg Borcher, chairman of the Powell school board.
Under the plan, all school employees and students will undergo ALICE training/refreshers every year. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.
At every school, exterior doors remain locked, except for the main entrance leading to a secure vestibule. A security sign-in system requires every person to have their driver’s license scanned before entering a school building.
The plan addresses not only how to keep students and staff safe, but also “how we respond in a trauma-filled crisis situation should one occur,” Borcher said.
Curtis said he wants the community to know that safety and security are always at the forefront of school employees’ minds.
“It’s important for me that our parents know how serious this is for us,” he said, and how much time, effort and resources the district is expending on school safety and security.
Social/emotional and mental health
When Curtis rolled the plan out to school employees, he focused on the mental health and social/emotional well-being aspects.
“Because if we have school systems where students feel safe, they feel like they belong, and they have the support that they need, they’re far less likely to reach that breaking point,” Curtis said. “When you have protocols in place for identifying students and intervening early, it just doesn’t get to that point.”
To that end, district leaders have talked about the need for additional counselors in Powell schools. While the district has more counselors than it has ever had, they’re still a few short, Curtis said.
Counselors can be stretched thin and some balance responsibilities among multiple schools.
He is getting input from mental health professionals in the district about what they envision for adding a new position. Curtis said he sees a need for an additional counselor to share responsibilities between Powell High School and the Shoshone Learning Center.
In partnership with Heritage Health and Powell Valley Healthcare, the school district is applying for grants to provide more mental health services for kids in the community. Park 1 also is on the short list for a similar grant with the Wyoming Department of Education.
A student’s mental well-being is a top priority, Curtis said, and every staff member undergoes training for suicide prevention.
Statistically speaking, students are far more likely to die of suicide than by a school shooting, he said.
“We need to make sure that our safety plan also addresses that aspect,” he said. “This is not just a safety plan for school shooters — it’s a safety plan that’s a holistic approach to the entire system.”
Since Wyoming passed a law allowing districts to arm trained employees, the Powell school board and others have debated whether to allow guns in their schools. During those discussions, Curtis called school safety a complex topic and said there isn’t one solution.
“I was very glad that the board took that to heart and took reasonable steps to ensure that we have a complex system to address a complex problem,” he said.
When it came to arming staff, Curtis said “it was a matter of logistics that I’m not sure that people fully grasped.”
“If I have one teacher in a building that’s 90,000-square-feet and they’re with students, I don’t want them to leave students. Their job is to take care of the students that they’re with,” he said.
It’s not practical for a teacher to leave a class and somehow neutralize a threat somewhere in the building, he said.
“That’s not what they were hired for,” Curtis said. “An SRO, however, their only charge is to keep our schools safe. They have one job, one focus.”
Curtis said he is a supporter of concealed carry, “but I’m also one who is very practical in what that would look like.”
Chairman Borcher said it is possible the board will look at a concealed carry policy in the future.
“I honestly believe concealed carry by certain highly qualified employees may be a tool in the toolbox that could be used as part of a school safety plan,” Borcher said. “However, it isn’t the sole answer to keeping schools safe. There is so much more at stake than whether we do or don’t put guns in our schools.”
Had the board simply voted on whether to allow employees to carry guns, “that vote, either yay or nay, … would have ended the conversation on school safety,” Borcher said. “But the vote we took to implement a school safety and security plan keeps this topic in front of our administrative team and the board on an ongoing basis, as the plan is updated on an annual basis.”
Just because the plan was approved ahead of the 2019-20 school year, “that doesn’t mean we’re finished,” Curtis added.
“This is a living, breathing document that we will be examining,” he said.
A public version of the plan is available at Park County School District No. 1 Central Administration Office — though the full plan is only available to administrators, the board and school counselors.
“While the majority of our plan is available for public view, the meat and potatoes of the plan will remain confidential as we cannot divulge every aspect of the safety and security plan and then allow a would-be perpetrator to use that plan against us at a time of their choosing,” Borcher said.
He added that everyone in the district — from administrators to teachers to bus drivers to custodians — is devoted to educating kids in a safe environment.
“We preach that school safety is the responsibility of every adult in the system, no matter what position you are in,” Curtis said. “If you work for us, part of your job is school safety.”
Parents or grandparents can help schools by keeping their eyes and ears open to any possible threat and reporting those to law enforcement, Borcher said. It’s also important for families to teach kids when they should tell a school leader or policeman about something they heard.
Borcher recently attended a conference where Columbine school leaders shared their experiences from the 1999 shooting where two teens killed 12 fellow students and one teacher. In the aftermath, Borcher said school administrators dealt with the trauma, asking “What could we have done better? What could we have done differently?”
“I hope it never happens here,” Borcher said.