After weeks of asking questions, Powell school board members must soon come up with an answer. The board will decide Wednesday whether to move forward with developing a new policy to allow trained school staff to carry concealed firearms.
Leading up to the decision, the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees has discussed the issue at length, held a public forum and surveyed parents, staff and the community.
Last week, trustees met with the district’s attorney Scott Kolpitcke and Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt. That included more than an hour in a closed-door executive session to discuss legal ramifications of a possible concealed weapons policy. The meeting then continued in open session, as Kolpitcke and Eckerdt answered trustees’ questions.
“So many questions to answer,” Board Chairman Greg Borcher said at one point. He said the general public doesn’t think about all the specifics when they say to put guns in schools.
“Now you have all these what-ifs and things to think about,” he said.
One of the questions: How would it impact law enforcement’s response if school staff were armed and pursuing a shooter, rather than sheltering in place with their students?
“My primary concern with a hunter methodology — where the teacher is going out to seek and engage that active shooter — is the level of training that’s required to be able to respond with that muscle memory,”
He asked what threat a teacher could pose to students in the hallways and law enforcement coming through the door.
“We train to the level of muscle memory, and a weapon is a threat,” Eckerdt said.
He also asked what happens to 25 students in a classroom if a teacher leaves.
Chairman Borcher said there could possibly be different levels of trained employees.
“A classroom teacher is supposed to be in the classroom, protecting their students — not leaving,” Borcher said. “But if it was a custodian or a principal that’s throughout the building, it could be a whole different level of training and expectations out of that person.”
In general, Curtis said teachers are asked to not leave their classrooms.
During the school day, a high school instructor may step out to use the restroom, but an elementary school teacher wouldn’t leave kids without another adult in the room, he said.
“I would never want a teacher to leave their students in a crisis situation,” Curtis said.
More school resource officers?
Trustee Kimberly Condie asked how much it would cost to hire more school resource officers.
If an officer was hired at $40,000, it would cost around $65,000 to $70,000 with benefits, Curtis said.
“And then it’s every year,” he said.
Borcher recalled receiving a comment from a retired Park County sheriff’s deputy saying that retired law enforcement “would be more than willing” to serve as SROs in local schools.
“What the cost would be, I don’t know,” he said.
Currently, there are days when the school resource officer is “running 100 mph and doesn’t have time to eat lunch,” Curtis said.
However, if there were two SROs, “there would be a lot of down time for both,” he said.
“If you were to have three, now you’re getting into lots and lots of down time,” Curtis said. “I think the thing that would worry me about that is down time breeds complacency.”
He said most of the time would be spent sitting or wandering the halls.
For a school district Powell’s size, it would be very rare to have one SRO per building, he said.
Trustee Kim Dillivan said he wondered if an officer could do other things at the school.
“But then I think, well, you go far enough and you’re basically just talking about arming teachers,” Dillivan said.
Curtis said a principal had suggested thinking outside of the box, and instead of having teachers trained to be SROs, maybe train an officer to teach reading.
“But then you put them in the classroom, and they can’t leave the classroom anyway,” Borcher said.
Just one component
Superintendent Curtis noted that while a school shooting could happen here, statistically speaking, the chances are miniscule. School officials are weighing that risk as they look at different security and training measures.
“Unless you became on-level with the state penitentiary, there is no way to get that risk to zero,” Curtis said.
Curtis emphasized that “this decision we’re making about firearms is just one piece of what we’re looking at” when it comes to school safety.
“I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I think that the best course of action is to have a comprehensive approach to a very complex problem,” he said.
Through active shooter training, fortifying school buildings and other security measures, the district is “doing more all the time,” he said.
“We want this to be a rich, inviting environment, for not only our students but for our parents to come to,” Curtis said. “But on the same token, they also need to have all the elements of safety. That’s a balance we’re definitely trying to strike.”
Curtis has met with the fire marshal to see if Powell schools could install devices to barricade classroom doors. Currently, such devices would be against fire code.
Curtis showed school board members a device that would barricade a door to prevent someone from entering, but still allow students or teachers inside a classroom to easily open the door to exit. First responders could pop the door open with a simple tool.
“With the number of doors that we have in our district, that would be about a $52,000 investment,” Curtis said.
He said the district’s approach “has to be multi-layer.”
“We want all the tools that we can muster,” Curtis said. “We don’t want to have a single point of failure …”
Some districts are using metal detectors or requiring students to use clear backpacks, Borcher said.
Trustee Lillian Brazelton said there’s a fine line between a jail and a school when you start instituting some of those things. She said one of her son’s teachers said, “’The day they put a metal detector in the high school, that will be the day I quit teaching,’ because his focus is the students.”
Board Vice Chairman Trace Paul wondered when a school last had a fire, while the code requires fire alarms, pull switches, sprinkler systems and certain doors.
“At what point does what we’re talking about for this threat start to become code?” he asked.
It has been decades since a child in America died in a school fire, Curtis said.
“But a fire doesn’t have a brain and isn’t thinking of ways to exploit those codes or weaknesses, whereas you add the human element as the adversary, they do have a thinking brain,” he said.
The Powell school board will vote on whether to keep the current weapons policy or move forward with a new policy during its meeting beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the School Administration Building.