By Kristine Galloway
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Mental health quickly became the theme Tuesday at school safety discussions at Cheyenne Little American Hotel and Resort.
Around 30 people, from officials to students, testified to the Federal Commission on School Safety during its visit to Cheyenne for the third listening session in a series around the United States.
Nearly every one of them talked to commissioners about the need for increased access to mental health care for students.
Michael Harris, director of student services in Fremont County School District 1, told commissioners he recognized several students in the shooter who is accused of killing 17 students and faculty members Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“Socially unengaged, academically struggling, behaviorally challenging (and) quite possibly suffering from mental illness. The truth is, I’d be willing to bet that every school district in Wyoming has had at least one student who fits a similar profile,” he said.
“We still do not have adequate ways to provide some of our most concerning kids with the additional help they need before they seriously consider turning to violence at school. When it comes to meeting the mental health needs of these students, schools are underequipped.”
Mick Zais, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, moderated two official panels in the early afternoon.
He explained that President Donald Trump formed the Federal Commission on School Safety following the shooting.
“Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As Secretary (Betsy) DeVos noted, we’ve suffered too many heartbreaking reminders of the need for this nation to come together to address the underlying causes of school violence,” he said.
The two panels allowed the commission representatives to gain insight into what education and law enforcement officials in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Montana do to address school safety. A public listening session following the panels offered the public an opportunity to tell commissioners what they believe are the top needs for addressing school safety.
Eighteen speakers at the listening session included a variety of residents from nearby states, including students, education professionals, counselors and executive directors of various school safety organizations.
In addition to mental health discussions, some panel and public forum attendees talked about various ways to improve building security.
Del McOmie, director of the State Construction Department, told commissioners the School Facilities Division in Wyoming is taking steps to improve safety and security in schools.
He said the division will seek additional funding from the Legislature in 2019 or will ask permission for schools to more widely use $9 million the Legislature previously provided for improved security.
Many speakers, including officials, spoke of the need to increase the presence of school resource officers in schools, though four students spoke against increasing police presence. They said school resource officers are not equipped to serve as school counselors and increase the possibility that minority students will be singled out and made to feel unsafe.
Becky Juschka, a school resource officer at Cheyenne’s Johnson Junior High, told commissioners that students in the school feel safer because of her presence and often feel more comfortable visiting with her than reporting to another police officer or a school administrator.
She, along with many others, touted the success of Wyoming’s Safe2Tell program.
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael said data from February show the Safe2Tell program had 94 reports that month, including eight regarding possible planned school attacks. The program also takes reports on bullying, suicidal individuals and other areas of concern.
Nearly every education official in attendance spoke against arming school staff, a discussion that gained momentum in Wyoming after the Legislature passed a bill in 2017 allowing school districts to decide individually whether they want to pursue armed staff in schools.
Bill Tallen, executive vice president of Distributed Security Inc., is one of a few attendees who spoke in favor of arming school staff members. Tallen’s company is contracted to provide training for staff members in Park County School District 6 who choose to carry firearms.
Tallen said armed staff members can fill a 5- to 10-minute police response time, allowing someone to respond to a shooter situation in a shorter time frame. He added that shooter situations occur after all preventative programs fail.
“In Parkland and at Virginia Tech – for just two examples – such programs were in place. The shooters had actually been identified as potential threats, and yet, the shootings still happened,” he said.
Vera Berger, a senior at Bosque School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, addressed her fears about guns in schools and explained the actions she believes will improve safety in schools across the nation.
“My generation has had a sort of collective realization in the past few years that our fears of being shot at school are in no way baseless,” she said.
“We are afraid. And I would like to clarify that we are not only afraid of being shot at school, but that our voices are not being heard. We fear that our education and our safety are becoming politicized.”
Berger urged the commission to provide holistic support for students, including more counselors and social workers and keeping guns out of schools, no matter whose hands the gun is in. She referenced 250 school shootings since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
“We live in a nation where education is supposed to be free, but children are paying with their lives,” Berger said.
“We should be planning prom dates instead of escape routes.”