CHEYENNE – Lawmakers on the Joint Education Interim Committee spent more than an hour Friday discussing school safety, though they ultimately rejected a bill requiring school districts to adopt certain security policies.
The bill, which failed by a 7-6 vote, would have required school boards to follow safety policies consistent with models developed by the Wyoming Department of Education.
Under the bill, threat assessment procedures, which aim to identify threatening students prior to them committing a violent act, would have to be included in those safety policies.
“If we’re going to focus and hone on one area that we’re really lacking some consistency in, it’s the threat assessment piece,” said Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, who crafted the bill.
As part of the accreditation process, districts are already required to submit school safety plans. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said the bill would send a strong message to the country that Wyoming takes their procedures seriously.
“I think the ability that the Legislature has with this bill is to really underscore the importance of threat assessments,” Balow said.
About 25% of schools that responded to a survey from the Wyoming Department of Education reported lacking any sort of threat assessment protocol, and 36% of the 84 respondents said they have no threat assessment team.
“You might have a threat assessment protocol, but if you don’t have a team to act on the protocol, it makes it pretty tough to consider yourself ready to assess threats or potential harm in your building,” Balow said during the meeting.
Laramie County School District 2 Superintendent Jon Abrams said the bill wouldn’t create any issues in his district.
“My one caution is as it works through that process, and if you decide something more specifically needs to happen that requires additional resources, provide those resources,” Abrams said.
Dave Barker, superintendent of Fremont County School District 1, said the bill wouldn’t change anything for his district.
“I don’t think there’s anything in here that we’re not doing already other than the piece requiring the (state) superintendent to develop that support,” Barker said.
Other legislators, including Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, argued the bill didn’t actually mandate anything.
“It is simply having the superintendent of the WDE put out model plans, which may or may not be adopted,” Connolly said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Ellis responded that she was trying to address her colleagues’ concerns with a different school safety bill that failed in the House last session by making this one less prescriptive.
“I think as a parent or student reading this bill, if you see an inconsistency, you can take it to your local school district and have that conversation locally,” Ellis said. “Even though it’s not mandated, it still provides the public an opportunity to start asking questions of their district about whether or not they’re using this consistently with the best practices the state has identified.”
Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, asked what was being done to protect students within their own schools.
“It appears we’re looking at a lot of externals, but from what I know and what I’ve seen, the threat is from within,” Hutchings said.
In response, Balow said threat assessment protocol and school resource officers are useful ways to better understand students and their needs.
“One of the positive byproducts of the threat assessment is that it can also flag things like bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts,” Balow said.
School safety was the top priority for the Education Committee during the interim period last year, but it wasn’t included as a topic for discussion leading up to the 2020 legislative session.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said the committee should consider the bill, noting another school shooting occurred Thursday in California.
“This is another tool in the toolbox, and I think school safety and security should be the singularly most important thing that we do,” Coe said.
Ultimately, the bill failed, as legislators worried that it was brought forward too late in the process.
“I support this idea,” Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, said. “I like it as a personal bill ... (but) at this point in the timeline of the committee process, I really don’t like it as a committee bill.”
In an interview with the Tribune Eagle following the meeting Friday, Ellis said she would sponsor the bill individually during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Feb. 10.
The committee’s discussion comes the same week that several schools in Cheyenne were placed on secure perimeter by police following a threat from a student.