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Evanston school board first to adopt gun policy

By Sheila McGuire

Uinta County Herald

Via Wyoming News Exchange

EVANSTON — In spite of confusion among the public, some staff members and even the trustees themselves about whether a third reading was necessary prior to final passage, the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees voted in favor of policy CKA, the school security policy that provides for concealed carry of firearms by staff members. 

The vote taken Tuesday was 5-2, with trustees Dave Bennett, Jenny Welling, Kerby Barker, Jami Brackin and Tammy Walker voting for the measure, and trustees Kay Fackrell and Kim Bateman opposed. Board chair Cassie Torres and trustee Josh Welling missed both the meeting and the vote. 

The policy will now be in place beginning on July 1 for the 2018-19 school year. With the affirmative vote, Evanston has now become the first school district to approve such a policy since the Wyoming Legislature passed legislation allowing for such policies during the 2017 session. 

The policy has been put together over the last few months, largely through the work of a committee of staff members and law enforcement using documents from the Wyoming Department of Education and Wyoming School Board Association as guidance. A public forum was held at the end of January to gather community input, and survey links were sent out to staff and the public, although according to the district’s Facebook post of survey results only about 400 people completed the survey. 

Public comments from those in favor and those opposed to the policy were again heard at Tuesday night’s meeting, with those in favor primarily stating they believe armed teachers would add a level of protection for students. Those opposed said they believe armed teachers would be more likely to lead to accidents with firearms and that there are still many unanswered questions and options to explore prior to passing such a policy. 

At one point, Superintendent Ryan Thomas said, “It’s fair to say there are still lots of questions that have not been answered and there are lots of questions regarding tactics that we can’t talk about.” However, at another point Thomas said he believed all of the questions posed by members of the public had been answered throughout the process of drafting the policy.

People spoke passionately on both sides of the issue, but the real confusion began when Bateman expressed her concerns about voting for a policy to arm teachers prior to implementing other safety policies throughout the district. When Bateman said she would not vote in favor when it came to a third reading, Thomas said there would not be a third reading because only two were required according to district policy.

This came as a surprise to Bateman, along with trustees Walker and Brackin, who said they also believed there would be a third reading. 

Uinta Meadows Elementary Principal Jerrod Dastrup spoke up and said he knew several members of the public and staff who also believed there would be three readings and planned to attend the April meeting for the final vote. 

Thomas and school district attorney Geoff Phillips explained that district policy requires only approval on two readings for passage. However, only minutes earlier Phillips had himself referred to a third reading when discussing his research into governmental immunity and efforts to contact the Wyoming Attorney General’s office for guidance on the policy regarding standards for teachers with firearms. 

“I’m not sure that I’m ever going to have a clear answer,” said Phillips, “but I will put something in writing before we vote on this at a third reading if it passes second reading today.” 

Bateman asked if there was interest in tabling the policy until issues could be cleared up, but Thomas and some of the trustees said they wanted a vote to be held. 

Just prior to voting, Thomas said he knew the vote was a difficult one for the trustees but expressed his view that it was necessary and said he was more scared of doing nothing than implementing the concealed carry policy. 

Evanston High School Principal Merle Lester again spoke in favor of the policy and said he had been working for eight years to get legislation authorizing teacher concealed carry adopted at the state level.

Trustee Bennett spoke passionately in favor of the policy, even speaking of his time at the high school.

“I was there for a lot of years; how do you know I wasn’t concealed carrying for 21 years?,” he asked.

Bennett went further in his support saying the whole point was that it was concealed carry and nobody but building principals would know which staff members were armed. He said, “I would hope some of the building principals have got the balls to get in on this.” 

Although the policy is now in place, it remains to be seen what effect it will have on the district budget. Thomas has explained at previous meetings that liability insurance providers have declined to provide an estimate on coverage until the policy is in place. 

Thomas said he spoke with Wyoming State Rep. Gary Piiparinen prior to the meeting to get an update on education funding from the Wyoming Legislature. Thomas said he believes between funding cuts and decreased enrollment resulting in further cuts, the district would be down somewhere between $500,000 and $800,000 next school year. 

That figure does not include expected increases in district health insurance, which is going out for bids. It also does not include any increases in liability insurance that could result from the adoption of the concealed carry policy. 

Other costs associated with the policy include psychological evaluations for those who apply to carry, as well as costs of firearm training and biometric lock boxes for firearm storage. Although Lester said a significant number of certificates for training courses have been donated, there will still be costs associated with travel to training that will have to be carried by the district. 

Thomas again reiterated the concealed carry policy was only part of the district’s efforts to address school security, with structural design changes planned for multiple schools to limit access to the buildings during the school day. EHS, Davis Middle School, and Uinta Meadows Elementary are all slated to have front entrance redesign construction take place over the summer break, though Thomas said those projects will be going out to bid soon and it is always questionable whether contractors will be submitting bids for the projects, which are ideally going to be done concurrently. 

Bateman said she wanted there to be some type of ALICE training for all district staff and students. Thomas said that previously, such training — which involves training people to fight back against assailants — had been deemed too extreme; however, he said he now feels differently and gave Bateman his assurances that such training would indeed take place.

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