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Most speakers in Gillette oppose arming teachers

GILLETTE — Jenny Carroll fought through nerves and tears Thursday night to tell how she opposes the Campbell County School District moving forward on a policy that would arm teachers and school employees.

GILLETTE — Jenny Carroll fought through nerves and tears Thursday night to tell how she opposes the Campbell County School District moving forward on a policy that would arm teachers and school employees.

She was one of 11 people who spoke Thursday night in the first of three public listening sessions in Gillette about how they feel about the district looking into a new state policy adopted by the Wyoming Legislature in its 2017 session.

Since the statute took effect, two school districts in Wyoming have adopted it. Several other districts are looking into it as well, including Campbell County.

For Carroll, the issue came into focus in November when a Sage Valley Junior High student brought guns and ammunition to school, allegedly intending to shoot students and teachers.

Another student at the school raised the alarm and helped avert a possible tragedy.

Carroll’s 13-year-old son, one of her four children, was among students in a gym class at the time the school went into lockdown. The teacher ushered the students into a storage space in the gym, grabbed a bat and promised to protect their lives, she said.

“My son said he said, ‘Don’t worry guys, whatever happens, I’ll be here.’” she recalled.

It still brought tears to her eyes five months later.

“My first thought was how unfair it was for that teacher. How unfair for that teacher to be put in that position to have to put his life on the line to save my son,” she said.

“Just that boldness and the courageousness of that teacher. I saw him a few days later at Walmart. I didn’t know him, beyond him being my son’s gym teacher. I saw him with his two young kids and I thought ... ‘how unfair. How unfair to ask our teachers to do this?’

“It’s unfair unless you have exhausted every other safety measure, every other way you can prevent and keep them safe, other than to expect our teachers to do that and ... I’m against it.”

It took her less than two minutes to make an emotionally charged point.

There were other powerful moments in the 50 minutes school officials took comments Thursday. All but one of the 11 speakers opposed the idea.

One in favor

The policy would require more rigorous training than required under the law for those school employees selected to conceal carry in schools and district buildings.

The only person to speak in favor of the policy was Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad.

A local gun range owner, Shelstad also has an extensive firearms background and works as a certified firearms instructor through several national agencies.

He applauded school officials for allowing the community to speak out on the issue.

“I think it’s extremely unfortunate that we’re having this conversation to begin with,” he said. “That being said, it’s the world we live in.

“I’m for arming our teachers on a very strict circumstance, even more so than what the statute says. History shows that our schools and our churches are two soft targets nationally. We are fortunate in Wyoming that we don’t see a lot of it, but we did just have a near miss at Sage Valley.”

He also said it’s shortsighted to think you can make a rule to allow teachers to carry guns in schools and think it’s not going to cause problems.

“The last thing any of us want is for one of our kids or staff to be caught in the crossfire of a gunfight in school. I think that’s probably the worst-case scenario. ... I don’t envy (your) situation at all.

“But by the same token I’ve heard our sheriff and our chief law enforcement officers here in Gillette say that the No. 1 quickest response to an active shooter is somebody in the school with a firearm, whether that be a school resource officer or a teacher or a faculty member of the school.

“I think it’s extremely important for our community to realize that it’s not just as easy as just saying you’re going to allow school professionals to carry a firearm. It’s very problematic.”

Shelstad said he thinks the school district has to figure out a way to protect its kids. He’s argued with a friend who thinks all teachers should be allowed to be armed in schools and visitors also should be able to carry in schools.

The only way he would support it, Shelstad said, is if a teacher was barricaded in a room with students “and if they had a firearm, the very last resort would be if somebody broke in that room and ... there was going to be shots fired, then they could react to the fire. That would be the only case I would support.”

He said firearms should never be used as a deterrent and that a firearm is a last-resort weapon in all cases.

“I would support more school resource officers as well,” Shelstad said. “Probably the best scenario for protecting kids in school is more resource officers. The problem with that is funding. ... It costs money.”

Retired teachers opposed

The first four speakers were all retired Campbell County School District teachers. They opposed arming teachers and school employees, some even citing circumstances they experienced of unhinged teachers who acted strangely during their tenures.

“I can’t get my head around anything about this,” said Vickie Swenson, the first to speak. “What happens if that shot misses a target and hits an innocent child?”

She also wanted the district to visit each school and poll staff about their feelings on arming schools.

Swenson suggested the district should focus its energy on the cause of most school shootings: mental health issues.

“I don’t think guns belong in classrooms,” added Christy Gerrits, a former Sage Valley science teacher.

She said guns cause an escalation in situations because a shooter feels empowered by having a weapon.

“Having somebody hit ... we’re going to pay for that. It’s not a remote possibility,” she said.

Other retired teachers said they wouldn’t want their grandchildren to go to schools with armed employees.

“Some teachers are just too volatile to carry guns in a classroom,” said Sheila Jeremiah. “Asking a teacher to shoot a kid is asking a lot.”

More resource officers

Peggy Whittlesey, a former math teacher at Twin Spruce Junior High, said the district should invest in more school resource officers instead of arming teachers or staff. She suggested there are other ways to make schools safer and the district should pursue that.

Former school counselor Justine Schuff said she’s “passionately and emphatically against this measure.”

It would create high anxiety and be a negative influence in schools, she said.

She reminded officials that the district is looking at ways to keep schools safe, and “my feeling is that arming teachers will not help.”

Amanda Gilbert, who taught for eight years and is now a full-time mom, noted that teaching “is a high pressure position” that can cause some to become mentally unstable.

Kim Strub, a mom of an 11-year-old girl in the school system and a former school nurse, was the last to speak. She also opposed the measure.

“One question that I have is do I want my daughter to go to a school where a teacher is armed? For me, the answer is no,” she said. “I think the money would be better spent on school resource officers.”