How are students and educators in a gun-toting town reacting to the nation’s school shootings?

By on March 14, 2018

And is it enough?

(Brie Spielmann)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It was a spring school day in 2011, sixth period. Thomas Harrison was a senior at Jackson Hole High School in AP Spanish class. Suddenly, he and his classmates were told to sit against the walls of the classroom—there was an active shooter in Cottonwood, they learned, and he could be heading for school. Harrison and his classmates were instructed to stay put, against the walls. Their teacher locked the classroom door. No one knew exactly what was going on, or for how long they would be there.

Most of what Harrison remembers feeling that day was not fear. Instead, what stands out for him was an urgent need to pee. It’s what most of his peers remember of that day: Harrison, in his desperation, peed into a water bottle. The water bottle wasn’t big enough.

“When you gotta go, you gotta go,” Harrison said in his defense. “I had no idea how long we were going to be locked in that classroom, and I really had to go.”

It was a colossal joke at the time—still is. Thanks to social media, that moment will live forever on the internet. And any fear his classmates may have felt that day has since been forgotten in the shadow of those few, ridiculous seconds. But Harrison was all too familiar with lockdown drills and evacuations at that point. His middle school years were peppered with bomb threats, almost one a semester. In the face of a potential active shooter on school grounds, he didn’t really think he had anything to fear.

“At first it was a little jarring, but after the initial shock I wasn’t worried,” Harrison said. “With the multiple bomb threats, I feel like most of us were desensitized to events like that.”

His classmate Ben Trauner agreed: “I didn’t take it very seriously. I remember feeling like it was just an excuse not to be doing school work.” A shallow reaction, Trauner admitted, but what else could be expected from a bunch of teenagers?

“It’s not like we’re sitting there thinking about life and death; we’re not really ready to have those thoughts, and no one wanted us to have them.”

But much has changed in the seven years since Harrison peed in a bottle. Harrison was quick to contextualize his reaction in light of current events, most recently a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and educators. He might have reacted differently, he said, in today’s climate. Might have been more afraid.

Indeed, in the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, educators across the country are reflecting on measures they take to protect students. Once again, the Parkland shooting has forced parents and educators to think the “unthinkable,” Charlotte Reynolds, Teton County School District information coordinator, said.

But Parkland wasn’t the only gun-related scare on February 14. Teton High School senior Rosemary Joseph stayed home from her Driggs, Idaho, school on February 15 after a classmate threatened to bring a gun to school the previous night.

Joseph saw the threat posted on Snapchat. A boy she had grown up with posted a video with a semi-automatic weapon, detailing his plans to bring it to school.

Then less than a month later, on March 2, it happened again. This time, someone posted a threat to Facebook, and Joseph was in school. “There were police officers everywhere. It was super weird and uncomfortable.”

And yet, in the wake of two threats in as many months and a national tragedy, Joseph said her school has been largely silent.  “People just aren’t talking about it,” she said. She took the initiative to meet with her principal, and a possible assembly/gun safety training is in the works, but otherwise, people seem unfazed.

“I think it’s being normalized,” she said.

As routine as bomb threats were during Harrison’s middle school years, so too are gun threats at Joseph’s high school. Joseph suspects gun culture is a factor in her community’s indifference—Teton Valley has a large hunting community, and owning guns is common. Idaho and Wyoming mirror each other in this way.

But Wyoming’s gun culture isn’t as deep-rooted as many would believe. In fact, according to a WyoFile essay by Phil Roberts, carrying a firearm within city limits was largely outlawed in the 1800s and early 1900s. Historic Wyoming wasn’t the outlaw-filled, gun-slinging Wild West as it is now romanticized.

Today, Cody houses two gun museums, one in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, named for “Buffalo Bill Cody.” Cody was, of course, a gun-slinging legend. Still, he wouldn’t have been allowed to carry his gun into city limits during his lifetime.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this cultural shift happened on a state level. Nationally, the Second Amendment, as it relates to an individual’s right to bear arms, wasn’t even an afterthought in national public dialogue until the 60s and 70s. Until then, the NRA was a non-political entity, only interested in improving marksmanship.

Today Wyoming is one of the gun-friendliest states in the country. It has the highest number of registered guns per capita of any state. Congresswoman Liz Cheney happens to be a lifetime member of the NRA and was proud to accept the organization’s endorsement in 2016, she said in a Facebook post.

Gun culture in Western states is not likely to change any time soon. But for Harrison, and Trauner, and now Joseph, growing up in gun-toting states creates a feeling of immunity from gun violence. And it’s true that Wyoming, the least populous state in the country, has the lowest rate of school shootings since 2013: zero. Idaho has only had two. “But … it’s not like we’re invincible,” Joseph said.

In late-February, just weeks after the Parkland shooting, the Wyoming Senate sent two bills to Governor Matt Mead’s desk that would allow teachers to carry firearms in school and citizens to carry them in public buildings.

Drills vs. Reality

“It’s really unimaginable in so many ways,” Reynolds said of the Parkland shooting. She said the school district tries to learn from these unimaginable moments. “As tragic as they are, we try to make sure that we understand the events, what took place, what worked well and whether things fell short.”

A meeting at the Jackson Hole Middle School on March 7 tackled just that. Assistant Superintendent Jeff Daugherty began by addressing parents’ fears—only eight parents attended, but he has spent at least 20 hours a week on the phone with concerned parents since Valentine’s Day, he said.

The meeting was as informative as it was assuring. Daugherty coached parents on how to respond in the event of a school threat. Basically, don’t follow your instincts, he said, don’t go to school to look for your child and congest roads. Don’t call the school and distract people on the scene. Information officers like Reynolds, he said, would keep communication channels open and parents informed.

In addition to routine drills, Daugherty said the district is tightening access into school buildings.

TCSD practices mandated monthly drills to train students and teachers for different scenarios: earthquakes, general evacuation, active intruders, active shooters. Some of the drills still resemble the real-life “active shooter” scenario of 2011. There are drills for every level of perceived threat, Reynolds explained: a lock-down is different than a lock-in, for example. The latter is more casual—doors to the building are locked, but students can still move freely around campus. The former is what forced Harrison to pee into a water bottle—classroom doors are locked, kids are instructed to stay put, against walls.

Then there are active shooter drills. Daugherty said they try to keep the details of such drills “close to the vest” because perpetrators of violence often study previous shootings, and study drills. At Marjory Stoneman High School, for example, the shooter had participated in previous drills—and knew how to work around them. A Daily Beast report speculated Nikolas Cruz, the shooter, pulled the fire alarm before shooting to counter any “active shooter” response.

TCSD doesn’t officially subscribe to ALICE, a protocol and acronym for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate,” but several school resource officers have ALICE training. Some drills resemble ALICE protocol, even if they don’t strictly adhere.

It’s the “Counter” that has generated some debate over the effectiveness and psychological impacts of such a protocol. Such drills force kids to imagine, and even pretend to react, to an imaginary active shooter. Some interpretations of ALICE ask students to prepare a defense and block a shooter using whatever means available: throw books, barricade the door. In 2015, an Alabama middle school garnered national headlines and sparked public outcry after the principal encouraged students to keep canned food in their desks—as ammunition.

The problem with these types of drills, some argue, is a lack of concrete evidence that they actually work. Their effectiveness is almost impossible to measure, even on a case-by-case basis. Students in Parkland had just practiced an active shooter drill a month prior, The Atlantic reported.

Such drills have psychological impacts, as well. A report from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) suggested that schools should, in fact, “plan for the rare possibility of an armed assailant as part of a comprehensive crisis/emergency preparedness effort.” Poorly executed drills, however, risk “physical and psychological harm to students, staff, and the overall learning environment.”

In TCSD, drills change depending on age. In elementary school, for example, intruder drills are called “listening drills,” because the biggest goal is getting kids to quiet down, said Libby Cruise Wood, a fifth grade dual immersion teacher at Colter Elementary School. The really intense drills happen when the kids are safe at home—but teachers aren’t immune to their effects.

Wood recalled a particularly intense drill in which law enforcement officers went into detail about all they could do to keep an intruder out. Over the PA system, a woman’s voice announced what hall the “shooter” was in. All she and her colleague could do “was stand there, and look at each other and cry.”

Teton High School doesn’t perform active shooter drills—though in the wake of the last two threats, Joseph would like to see that change. But a real threat is taxing, too. Joseph remembers the day after the March 2 threat as “super weird and uncomfortable.”

“It gives me a lot of anxiety,” she said. “To have the threat, it’s just scary. And then you’re supposed to focus, but police officers are walking up and down the hallways.”

Teenagers are anxious enough, Joseph said, without having to worry so intensely about their safety.

“School is a place where you have the right to feel safe.”

Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, studies perceptions of risk and health. “The more prepared we are, the more heightened our sense of risk,” Derkatch told The Atlantic. Certain drills, she said, “really expand the ways in which we feel increasingly under siege.” Especially for students who have already experienced violence, feeling constantly under attack can be re-traumatizing.

In other words, such drills create a feeling of danger that is disproportional to the actual threat—school-related homicides account for less than one percent of all homicides among kids in school, according to the NASP/NASRO report.

Still, there have already been 12 school shootings in the U.S. this year. Fires and earthquakes are rare, too, but that doesn’t stop schools from performing drills.

“It’s important our students know what to do,” Reynolds said. “A big part of it is students knowing what to expect, having practiced and understanding taking teachers’ direction and all of that.”

Despite her emotional reaction to one intense drill, Wood sees merit in training teachers and students for any and every possible scenario. In fact, she learned a lot that day. Though she grew up hunting with her dad, she hadn’t heard a gunshot since she was a girl. Without that drill, she might not even know what to listen for.

“I really believe that we as teachers need to know everything we can possibly know. Right down to those sounds, to how to work the intercom system. We have to know everything that we can know because we have so little control over any of it.”

Wood also thinks the kids do in fact get something out of their training. They like the precision of it, she said, and feeling like they have a job. “When you put them in a position of some control, where they know they have to go [out the window] one at a time and help one another … they know they can do it.” Even if a real crisis situation doesn’t look nearly as controlled, pieces of that training are going to be applicable, Wood said.

Daugherty, too, is confident drills make an impact.  Just recently, he said, the middle school conducted a “passing period” drill, the goal of which is to get students out of the hallways and into a safe place as quickly as possible. Even with 700 students in the middle school, the drill was over in 40 seconds.

Teachers in Arms

In the weeks following the Parkland shooting, President Trump has offered numerous policy suggestions—in one instance, he advocated for stricter background checks and raising the minimum gun-buying age. Meanwhile, he also suggested arming schoolteachers and ending gun-free zones in schools.

“We have to have offensive capability to take these people out rapidly before they can do that kind of damage,” Trump told reporters shortly after the shooting.

But for that to work, Wood said, teachers would need to know how to wield a gun in the first place. And again, despite a childhood of hunting with her dad, Wood doesn’t feel confident in her gun-slinging abilities. In fact, she’s terrified of guns.

“I think it’s a reasonable thing to expect of someone who has been hired to do that job,” Wood said—like a school resource officer, or a cop. But that’s not what teachers are hired to do.

“I live and breathe literacy. I don’t spend all of my time at a shooting range. That’s what it would require of me.”

She has logistical concerns, too.  Where could she safely keep a gun in a classroom full of children?

Teachers across the country were quick to respond to Trump’s call to arms. Many took to social media and used the hashtag #ArmMeWith to illustrate what they said they need more than guns: books and school supplies, the resources to offer emotional support to students in distress, mental health services.

In Wyoming it’s already legal for teachers to carry guns with a few caveats. In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law that allows local school boards to implement policies allowing staff to carry concealed firearms. TCSD’s school board decided last spring not to implement such a policy, Reynolds said, so firearms are still illegal on school campuses. The same board meets again on March 14, but as far as Reynolds knows, there’s no interest in revisiting that conversation.

TCSD board member Janine Teske echoed Reynolds. “Last spring our board agreed that the best school security options for our schools is to have a strong law enforcement presence through school resource officers, as well as implementing infrastructure solutions to control access to our schools,” she said. “I would prefer our teachers spend their time focused on professional development to support teaching our students and leave firearms training in a school setting to the professional law enforcement personnel.”

Since Trump’s suggestion to arm teachers, Florida legislators passed a bill that would allow some teachers to carry firearms. Ten days prior, a Georgia teacher was arrested after firing a gun in a classroom and barricading himself inside.

Discourse or Dismissal

Immediately after the Parkland shooting, students at Jackson Hole High School participated in a moment of silence.

The “moment” was fleeting. Aside from a letter sent to parents and the March 7 meeting, conversations about what happened at Stoneman Douglas High School have stayed largely out of the halls and classrooms. The district did ensure and communicate that counselors were available to talk to students “who may be feeling anxious or have questions or concerns,” Reynolds said. As far as she knows, counselors weren’t any busier in the days after Parkland than any other day.

Nationwide, three separate events have gained traction to protest gun violence in schools. A national school walkout is planned for Wednesday, March 14. Another “March for Our Lives” will take place across the country and world March 24. Jackson, though, is not listed as a participating city. Students will also march on April 20. So far, no one in Jackson has confirmed participation in any event, but Jackson Hole High School is prepared for a possible walkout Wednesday.

Wood knows of the events, and is weighing “age appropriate” ways to participate and engage. As a teacher, an elementary school teacher at that, she has to be careful to maintain a firm line between her personal feelings and her professional life, she said. Of course, gun violence affects her personally and professionally, so the line is less clear.

Personally, Wood “processed it very deeply”—she buried herself in media, reading article after think piece. So she was surprised when, at school the following Monday, “not a soul, not a single one of my students hinted at anything.” She has 37 students.

Of course, her students are young, 11 years old at most. It’s possible they were sheltered from the news. But Wood found herself in a bit of a dilemma: does she bring it up, in case students need to process? Or would talking about it be an unnecessary burden on her young students?

“Should we use it as a teachable moment or should we reassure that today is our day to learn? We’re here, we’re strong, we’re together. Period.”

She chose the latter approach. “You have to do everything for them.  That is the very best you can do,” Wood said. “And a lot of that judgment comes from what they’re bringing into the classroom every day.

If they had come to her with concerns, it would have been her duty to address them, she said. But they didn’t. “Maybe it’s just too much. They didn’t want any more.”

Weapon of Choice

After Parkland, Wood wrote Congresswoman Cheney a letter asking her to “find the courage to stand up against the gun lobby and work to create bipartisan legislation that will protect the people of our country and at the same time respect and uphold the Second Amendment of the Constitution.”

The letter wasn’t political, Wood said. It was personal. Mother-to-mother, teacher-to-mother.

“The issue of gun legislation should come from the values we share, Liz: our children, their education, and our home,” Wood wrote.

“The intention of my letter was truly and honestly to reach someone who does have power, and to, from the bottom of my heart, ask for help,” she told PJH. “That’s all it was.”

She has yet to receive an answer.

Still, not everyone believes guns are to blame. Bob Culver of the Jackson Hole Tea Party sat in during the March 7 school meeting and suggested that instead of “child-proofing your guns,” gun owners should “gun-proof your child.” In other words, teach them about responsible gun ownership. If guns were less mystifying, Culver said, they might also be less dangerous.

Others defer to mental health as the primary culprit in school shootings, not guns. In an op-ed in USA Today, Wyoming Senate hopeful Foster Friess posited that legislation change is not enough to curtail gun violence in schools. The problem, he said, is not the weapon, but the lack of support and mentorship available to perpetrators of violence.

Friess painted a picture of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz as “fatherless or a victim of divorce, bullied, suicidal, disconnected from his peers and seemingly in desperate need of a mentor.”

“The difference of a kid who makes it and one who doesn’t is simply one caring adult,” Friess wrote.

Friess has pledged to match up to $2.5 million in donations made to the “Return to Civility” fund at the National Christian Foundation before March 24.

Trauner, meanwhile, is a gun owner, a Wyoming kid. He remembered buying his first gun, how he walked into Sports Authority, how the staff helped him with the background check. He spent $200 and left with a gun. But gun ownership comes with responsibility, he said. It should at least require a little education. The active shooter in 2011 was a false alarm—a man had in fact shot himself and called the police to report an “active shooter.” He made up a vague description, a faceless man in a black hoodie, and sent law enforcement on a goose chase for a suspect that didn’t exist.

Still, for several hours that day, hundreds of students, parents, teachers and administrators believed there was a man with a gun heading toward the schools.

In hindsight, Trauner, like Harrison, might have been more concerned about an active shooter today. He’s noticed a trend in the way the conversation forms around gun violence and school shootings: people like to fall back on how few individuals and schools are actually affected—less than one percent.

“And yet,” he said, “here we are, in our little town in Wyoming that should be a safe place, and we had to deal with an active shooter situation. I think it affects more people than we take into account.”

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