Rush To Adopt Guns In Schools Rattles Evanston Parents And Teachers

Jun 15, 2018

School staff in Wyoming can now carry concealed weapons, on a district by district basis. A bill passed during the 2017 state legislative session gave school boards the power to decide if guns should be a part of security protocol. So far two communities, Cody and Evanston, have taken advantage of the new law. But in Evanston people like Sheila McGuire are pushing back.

McGuire said usually the school district is very communicative. “If it’s a half day of school I get a text, an email, a voicemail. It’s a half-day, hat day, send a dollar so your kid can wear a hat.”

But McGuire, the mother of two students in Uinta County School District #1, said as the district considered arming staff over the last year, there wasn’t the same level of communication. 

“If it’s something silly like, let your kid wear a hat to school I get three messages. But a survey about whether we should arm our teachers? We get one email, that never even use the word guns. It’s a school safety survey.”

McGuire heads up the Wyoming Parent Teacher Association and she’s a local reporter. She’s more dialed into what’s happening than most. With over 2,500 students in the district, McGuire was concerned when just over 250 parents and community members responded to the survey.  

Amy Grenfell is a regular participant in Uinta #1’s parent advisory team organized by Superintendent Ryan Thomas. She’s weighed in on everything from scheduling to how the high school valedictorian gets selected. But when guns came up?

“I did at that point voice my concerns of, I don’t know, there’s a lot to think through on this one,” said Grenfell. “And there were other parents in attendance who were more positive about this topic and that was the last I ever heard of it.”

Around the country, it’s been a heartbreaking year of shooting after shooting, and educators everywhere are desperate for concrete ways to make schools safer. Grenfell said instead of engaging the community in a broad conversation about solutions, district administrators were locked-in on concealed carry.  

“It feels like we jumped out of a 100 story building and we didn’t check for the elevator first,” said Grenfell. “Instead of being the first to pass this policy, why couldn’t we have been the first to creatively, cohesively, community-wide come up with a workable solution? Maybe that workable solution ended up in resulting in this. I don’t know but the process is what I would like to be proud of.”

Grenfell said she fears this has more to do with politics, and less to do with student safety.

In fact, former and current state lawmakers from Uinta County have been major drivers behind efforts to do away with gun-free zones altogether. But those bills haven’t passed. 

So the fight to expand the second amendment is happening on a district by district basis. Superintendent Ryan Thomas said it would have been easier if the legislature had just made the decision. 

“And I don’t want to place blame, but what’s happened is the school district has been put in the middle of these parents.”

Thomas said about 30 percent of the population is opposed to the district’s decision to bring guns into schools, and around 20 percent are undecided.

“So for 30 percent of our population, we are bad guys. When all we are trying to do is provide a safer environment for our students and staff.”

Thomas said the district also plans to do more staff and employee training, to retrofit school entrances to make them more secure, and to install a new communications system. 

But teachers are still concerned. High school science teacher Susan Anderson said the majority of school shooters are students, and she wrestles with the idea of teachers being willing to kill kids.

“And I’ve had other teachers approach me and say ‘Well, what if they are hurting other kids?’ And I tell them the same response: ‘I will do everything in my power to get those kids out of there.’” 

Anderson said there are still unanswered questions like, who will help kids escape if their teacher is focused on shooting an attacker? And what if a parent doesn’t want their child in a classroom with a gun? 

I watched a video of the school board meeting from the night of the final vote, and board members still had uncertainties about teacher duties and responsibilities, and the school district attorney Geoff Phillips told the board he was still compiling research for the board about what classified as teacher negligence.

“If our board members have questions, why not just say, ‘Hey, let’s table this, let’s do some more research, talk to more people,'" suggested Anderson. 

But instead of opting for more discussion, the board passed the policy that night.

Anderson said, “After it passed, I was pretty upset and went on the job vacancies for the Wyoming School Association and saw there was a job in Mountain View and decided to apply for it.” 

This fall Anderson will start that new job in the neighboring district, Uinta 4. She says concealed carry will likely come up there too but she’s hoping the district takes a different approach.

And there are districts taking their time to think through what to do. Greg Borcher, Park County School Board #1 board chair up in Powell, said they discussed concealed carry all winter long and the community remained split.  

“It is, as a board member, it’s not an easy decision because it is highly emotional and there’s very little data,” explained Borcher. “Because we typically make our decisions on sound data and on this subject there’s really no data saying one way or the other what would be the best.”

So in April they decided to table the gun discussion, and develop a more comprehensive plan that includes building improvements, training, interagency cooperation, and he said most importantly, a way to address social, emotional and mental health on an ongoing basis.

And in Evanston, parents are still fighting to slow the process down. A petition to delay implementation of the policy was submitted to the board in May, and a lawsuit filed earlier this month alleges the district failed to give adequate notice of the final policy before it was approved. The suit asks for an injunction to prevent the policy from moving forward until the case is resolved.

The Wyoming Department Education is planning a school safety summit for August 13-14 to help districts take a more comprehensive approach.