SANDPOINT – A proposal to arm school employees in this North Idaho resort community brought about 300 residents before the school board Tuesday night.
And after 90 minutes of public testimony, it was clear the debate here is just beginning.
About three dozen parents, teachers, students and others weighed in on the board chairman’s idea to beef up school security by giving certain staff members access to guns. A little over half said they were in favor of that, or at least serious study of the idea.
“Gun-free zones are a target for criminals. It’s a red flag … that there will be no return fire,” Maureen Paterson told the Lake Pend Oreille School Board.
School violence is not an abstract notion, George Wentz said. “This threat is here. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not here at all,” he said. “Guns do exist. The problem is the wrong people have them.”
Others told the school trustees they are not comfortable using guns as another layer of school safety.
“Our fears are in the wrong spot here,” said Wayne Wasserburger, who suggested the district could do more to protect students by teaching them safe driving.
Karl Dye, a parent and gun owner, said he’s discouraged to know Sandpoint has become associated with guns in schools as a result of widespread news coverage of the topic.
“This isn’t what our community is about,” Dye said. “We can’t protect our kids, we can’t protect ourselves, from every threat that’s out there.”
School Board Chairman Steve Youngdahl launched the discussion two weeks ago when he outlined his proposal to place guns in secure locations inside district schools and train select teachers, administrators and other employees to use them in case of a school shooting.
“I know it’s a very uncomfortable conversation to have, but it’s a necessary conversation,” Youngdahl said in an interview. “And I know that passions run deep on both sides.”
Asked for his recommendation Tuesday night, Superintendent Shawn Woodward told trustees the overwhelming majority of teachers, parents and community members he has spoken with oppose arming school employees. He advised the board to drop the idea and focus on other ways to make schools safer, including bringing on more school-based police officers.
The school district now pays for one police officer who patrols schools in Sandpoint. Woodward said he is researching the possibility of increasing the school-based officer presence in the outlying schools.
Youngdahl told The Spokesman-Review he is certain the district can arm school employees safely and at a minimal cost to keep kids safe. “And at the end of the day that’s what it’s really all about,” he said. “If you can’t prevent the situation, you need to minimize the damage.”
Arming staff members would be especially effective in the district’s most vulnerable schools – those farthest from emergency responders, Youngdahl said. Five of the district’s 11 schools are in rural areas.
“I found out our response time for some of our outlying campuses could be as long as 20 minutes,” he said. “Call it 20, call it 15, call it 10, I mean, a lot can happen in that period of time. It’s not like in town where it’s minutes.”
Under Youngdahl’s proposal, the district would work with local police to determine the tactical needs of each school, then ask for volunteers who would be screened and vetted, including psychological testing. The goal, he said, is to “find people that we think are going to be solid and suited and trainable.”
They would be trained in armed response at the direction of law enforcement, and the guns they’d have access to would use a fingerprint locking system that limits their use to the volunteers authorized to use them. That addresses any concern the guns would fall into the wrong hands, Youngdahl said.
“To anyone else it’s a big, expensive paperweight,” he said. “It can only be operated by the individual who can unlock it with their fingerprints.”
Youngdahl also said the district would work closely with law enforcement so first responders know the difference between armed staff members and intruders intent on doing harm.
The audience Tuesday night was divided on placing guns in schools.
“I do believe from the bottom of my heart we need weapons in every school to protect those children,” said Lewis Beebe, of Clark Fork.
Patty Bowman said school shootings remain a rare occurrence. “This seems like a scare tactic,” she said. “We shouldn’t give into that fear.”