For your own good

By: 
Bob Bonnar

The Joint Education Committee of the Wyoming State Legislature moved forward what is being called a ‘comprehensive safety plan’ for schools last week, and in the process they took a stab at deterring the number of Wyoming drivers who pass stopped school busses.

Unfortunately, the legislation approved by the committee won’t do anything to make students safer in Newcastle, and really only proves that the biggest threat to our schools is the Wyoming State Legislature’s constant desire to eliminate local control entirely to create a level playing field for education in Wyoming — even if that level is going to be set to the lowest common denominator.

When it comes to passing school busses, the proposed bill sets a fine for passing a stopped school bus with red lights flashing and a stop sign extended at $100, and establishes that videos taken by cameras (both internal and external) on school buses are not public records. The biggest problem with this piece of legislation is that courts in Weston County are already charging a penalty of $435 for passing a stopped bus, and any video taken of an offender by the camera mounted on the bus would be considered a public record under current law.

In other words, in a so-called effort to protect students, the state legislature is lowering the fine that can be assessed for endangering children getting on and off a school bus in Weston County and ensuring that violators will never have to worry about any public embarrassment that may occur if video footage of the infractions is ever released.

Casper school officials have refused to release bus camera footage to the public in response to a reported bullying incident, and the director of the Wyoming School Boards Association headquartered in Cheyenne has applauded the secrecy provision in the legislation, but we don’t think a bill that is supposedly intended to create a greater deterrent to those who endanger children by passing stopped school busses is the appropriate place to settle a long-running dispute over the lack of transparency in one of the state’s large school districts.

As such, it is hard to imagine how passage of this legislation is anything but a step backward for student safety in Newcastle and Weston County, but we assume it must be exactly what they’re looking for in Casper, Laramie or Cheyenne.

That appears to be the case with the school safety plans addressed in the draft legislation as well. The primary thrust of the language is to spell out the type of training schools must undertake to prepare for an attack by an active shooter, and to ensure that the training is delivered by a “nationally recognized organization in school safety and security training” — in other words, a high-priced out-of-state consultant.

We agree that schools should go beyond the traditional “lockdown” type of training that has been a staple in schools for decades in favor of a strategy that teaches students and teachers how to proactively react to a dangerous situation to protect themselves and others, but local schools have already undergone that kind of training and did it without the help of the state legislature. 

If experience is any indicator, the ability of local education leaders to access the training they desire for our schools and students will be decreased — not enhanced — as they will have to jump through a new set of bureaucratic hoops and work with somebody on an approved list of consultants at the Wyoming Department of Education for this training in the future.

The section of the bill that pertains to the school safety plans themselves also dictates that those plans — which must be submitted to the Department of Education — are not public records either. So the bill is stating that school districts have to be accountable for how they are protecting students, but that accountability is to Cheyenne, not their own community members — who are apparently not entitled to seeing how schools will respond in emergencies.

There was no real reason given for increasing the level of secrecy regarding how a school responds to an active shooter, but bill drafters may be falling back on a belief that would-be attackers would use the knowledge of school security to create a plan that would allow them to get around those measures.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that active shooter incidents aren’t well-planned terrorist attacks and the murderers who attack schools aren’t employing strategies they learned from watching Ocean’s Eleven or Mission:Impossible. They are sick individuals who are shooting up schools because they are soft targets, and that’s why so many are calling for the presence of armed police officers — and even teachers — to discourage attacks.

It would be far better to broadcast a comprehensive safety and protection plan to discourage somebody from targeting a school because broadcasting the plan announces that the target is prepared and not as ‘soft’ as it may appear.

Community members also have a right to know what the school district is doing to prepare for this type of attack, and it is unfair to expect school officials to simply tell concerned parents, “We are prepared and will keep your children safe. You just have to trust us on that.”

That is particularly true in Newcastle, where the superintendent and school board have long responded to threats and other safety issues by immediately alerting the public and providing assurance by letting them know what steps are going to be taken when danger does present itself. The school safety legislation makes it clear that sharing such information with the public is discouraged in Cheyenne, and may not be possible anymore in Newcastle.

When it comes to school safety, the state legislature is again ensuring a level playing field in education by bringing us down to the level of schools in Wyoming who aren’t being as proactive or transparent with their communities as we are, and that is just plain wrong.

As we read through the draft of the proposed bill and news accounts of the meeting in which it was approved, we couldn’t help but remember Ronald Reagan’s joke that the scariest phrase in the English language is, “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the safety of our schools and children, there’s nothing funny about another heavy-handed effort from the legislature and the Wyoming Department of Education to do a job we’re already doing ourselves — and doing better.

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