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After losing in Legislature, Idaho college campuses adapting policies to new gun law

North Idaho College security officer Kelly Hopkins patrols NIC Beach on Wednesday. The college is equipping its security officers with bulletproof vests and is considering arming them for the first time – unforeseen expenses during falling enrollment and budget cuts. (Kathy Plonka)
North Idaho College security officer Kelly Hopkins patrols NIC Beach on Wednesday. The college is equipping its security officers with bulletproof vests and is considering arming them for the first time – unforeseen expenses during falling enrollment and budget cuts. (Kathy Plonka)

Public colleges and universities in Idaho are getting ready to comply with a new state law they strongly opposed: allowing concealed weapons to be carried on campus.

The law takes effect July 1 and applies to people with an enhanced license to carry concealed weapons, along with retired law enforcement officers. College leaders universally opposed the law, but pro-gun rights lawmakers pushed it through the Legislature this year.

Now college administrators and campus security departments are preparing for the new reality: guns in lecture halls, labs, offices, cafeterias – everywhere but dormitories and entertainment venues with seating for more than 1,000, like stadiums and auditoriums.

“We intend to follow the law. Really we don’t discuss the merits of the law. That was done, the law passed. We’re talking about implementation,” said Matt Dorschel, executive director of public safety and security at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

Higher education leaders are revising campus weapons policies to comply with the new law, although bans on openly carrying guns are expected to remain in effect.

Some colleges also plan to beef up their security. North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene will provide its security officers with bulletproof vests plus training related to concealed weapon laws, and it may expand its seven-person security force by one full-time and one part-time position.

NIC also is mulling whether to arm its security workers for the first time, said Alex Harris, director of student development.

“I don’t know if we’ll go that direction, but it’s definitely out there and we’re considering it,” Harris said.

Another option, he said, is to work with the Coeur d’Alene Police Department to station a school resource officer on campus, similar to the officers present in middle and high schools.

All of these measures are unforeseen expenses at a time of budget cuts due to falling enrollment, Harris said. NIC’s enrollment this year dropped 11 percent from the previous school year – a trend that corresponds to the improving economy.

The vests will cost about $8,000, and arming and training security officers would cost $10,000 a year. The new security officers, or a school resource officer, would cost about $60,000 a year.

“The budget process this year, without this, has been difficult for the campus as a whole,” Harris said. “It does make for some tough decisions.”

The 12,000-student University of Idaho anticipates no significant changes for its security force. The Moscow Police Department can respond quickly to emergencies on campus, and a university task force implementing the new law is not likely to recommend arming campus security, Dorschel said.

“We don’t think that anything about the law would impact our need to have other armed responders on campus,” he said.

NIC’s College Senate, which includes faculty, staff and students, approved new language for the school’s weapons policy last week. The president’s Cabinet is expected to take the changes to the board of trustees Wednesday, and the board will vote on the changes by the end of June.

“The policy is the easy part because basically we just have to make sure we are abiding by the new state law,” Harris said.

The law allows colleges to continue to prohibit guns in dormitories and public entertainment venues with a seating capacity of at least 1,000. At NIC, that covers three buildings: the student residence hall, Christianson Gymnasium and the Schuler Performing Arts Center in Boswell Hall.

It’s not clear yet if the new law also extends to college facilities off campus. For NIC, that includes its Workforce Training Center in Post Falls and satellite centers in Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Kellogg. NIC is awaiting a legal opinion on that.

The UI task force is focused on updating the university policy on weapons, such as identifying which buildings would remain off-limits to guns, Dorschel said. That includes residence halls for about 2,000 students, Memorial Gymnasium, the Kibbie Dome and a ballroom in the student union building.

The task force also is looking at whether to provide more places for licensed weapons holders to store their guns at times they cannot carry them. And the group is exploring whether employees may ask someone if they are carrying a concealed weapon.

“We will make it clear that permit holders are not required to disclose their status as a concealed carry permit holder to another employee,” Dorschel said.

Both colleges will distribute answers to common questions about the new law, such as whether one should alert authorities if they see a gun.

“In general, we don’t want people to hesitate or to assume,” Harris said. “We’re responsible for the safety of our students and our employees, and if that requires us having an uncomfortable conversation with someone who has a permit, then we’ll do it.”

The responsibilities of license holders to keep their weapons concealed, and whether the law extends to off-campus activities, are other points colleges will attempt to address.

“We want to make sure we don’t ignore questions that we get from our community about how this works in practice,” Dorschel said.

People have mixed feelings about guns on campus, Harris said. Some believe the law will enhance safety because those who are permitted to carry guns may be able to respond to a threat, while others worry that more armed responders will only complicate the job of police and security officers.

Also, some employees have told the college they may be more inclined to request a security officer attend difficult conversations, such as terminating an employee or talking with a student who is failing a class, he said.

“I think it’s a matter of taking the temperature once this goes into effect and we start the fall semester to see what things we need to address and how,” Harris said.