District holds another hearing on guns

Retired police officer and firearms instructor Paul Dean shares his concerns about Rule CKA with the UCSD No. 1 Board of Trustees on Oct. 5. Dean said he believes adding firearms in the hands of teachers to volatile situations like armed attackers would make those situations more dangerous. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Other than a brief COVID update and a report on Evanston High School Homecoming activities, the October meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees consisted of another public hearing on proposed Rule CKA, the district’s concealed carry policy — one of more than a half dozen such hearings held in the past four-plus years.

Superintendent Ryan Thomas provided the public and board members with an update on the COVID-19 situation in Evanston schools, noting that the district has been “very fortunate” in not having large numbers of students and/or staff out with COVID at any one time. Following that update, Evanston High School Principal Merle Lester presented a report on homecoming activities, noting the EHS Student Council had done an outstanding job organizing activities all week. Lester said students whitewashed the E for the first time in years, the honk-out was resurrected and the dance was attended by approximately double the number of students who typically participate. “That’s just unheard of for a dance,” he said.

Lester also briefly mentioned the 2022 graduation ceremonies, saying he had been approached by some members of the senior class about the possibility of having graduation on a Friday night instead of a Saturday morning so there could be a fireworks display afterward. Thomas and board members suggested Lester send out a survey to parents and Thomas mentioned that many families probably already have plans based on the previously scheduled Saturday morning ceremony.

The meeting then turned to the CKA hearing, during which several individuals spoke about the proposed concealed carry policy. Since the Wyoming Legislature passed W.S. 21-3-132, the enabling legislation, in 2017, UCSD No. 1 has adopted a concealed carry policy on more than one occasion, although each time the rule has been challenged in court and ruled null and void for failure to follow the rulemaking process as required by the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act.

The first speaker during the hearing was former school board member and former EHS Principal Dave Bennett, who was on the board the first time CKA was adopted and who spoke in favor of the rule. Bennett said having armed staff would be a deterrent to anyone considering taking a weapon to school and said that those opposed to the rule are afraid of armed teachers and would therefore also likely be afraid of law enforcement officers because the training requirements are similar.

Former Uinta County Clerk Lynne Fox addressed the board and indicated she is opposed to the rule and said the board has failed to produce any evidence to back up assertions that armed staff would protect students and make schools safer. Fox said she believes such a policy could lead to “mayhem and unintended consequences” should an incident take place in Evanston schools.

Tiffany Eskelson-Maestas, one of several individuals involved in suits against the district over the policy, also addressed evidence and pointed out that students in Evanston schools are taught the importance of research and using data to back up claims. She said what she has struggled with over the past several years of district attempts to adopt and implement a concealed carry rule is the lack of evidence explicitly supporting such a policy. Eskelson-Maestas said there are complex issues that lead to active shooter and violent situations and indicated she doesn’t believe the proposed rule does anything to address those complex issue.

Former school board member and retired teacher Kay Fackrell, who was also on the board when CKA was initially adopted, spoke to trustees and said he was one of two members of the board who voted against the rule the first time due to personal reservations. He said he learned a lesson following that vote when three people thanked him and “about 60” asked him what he was thinking. Fackrell suggested that perhaps it’s not the job of a school board member to vote based on personal feelings but rather to vote based on what the majority of the public wants.

Parent Candace Reichenberg spoke and said she remembered being in high school when the Columbine shootings took place in 1999 and wondering if such a thing could happen in a local school. She said she feels safer with armed teachers and said she believes the majority of the community feels comfortable with guns as it is a hunting community. She also indicated she thinks teachers could be trained to shoot in a way to just wound potential attackers.

Monica Vozakis, another parent who has been involved in litigation against the district over CKA, said she is concerned about armed staff using lethal force in a situation that doesn’t call for such, an idea she described as “terrifying.” Vozakis said she believes the district was the first in the state to adopt a policy following passage of W.S. 21-3-132 because trustees and administration expressed a desire to be the first. She said concerns she and others have expressed to the board repeatedly have been brushed off, with those concerns then being heard in a court of law instead.

Vozakis said evidence presented to the board indicating armed staff do not make schools safer has been ignored. “Ignoring evidence is not appropriate in the rule-making process,” she said, indicating doing so drags proceedings back into court rather than resulting in the kind of open dialogue those opposed to CKA have been requesting for years. Vozakis also addressed previous comments by some board members that the litigation has been “frivolous” because the rule has been thrown out over “technicalities.”

“If the board thinks that’s frivolous, that’s problematic,” said Vozakis. “Following the law is not frivolous.”

Retired police officer and former firearms instructor Paul Dean addressed the board and said he too is opposed to the rule. Dean said he finds it ironic that in his years of law enforcement when working in situations with known violent offenders or when called to deal with violent patients at the Wyoming State Hospital, he wasn’t allowed to be armed, yet the board proposes asking teachers to be armed. 

“It seems to me we need more cops and not teachers with guns,” said Dean. “Bringing firearms into any situation makes it more dangerous and volatile.” He also said accidental discharges happen even with highly trained police officers. “It seems to me that any safety associated with armed teachers would be lost by bringing a gun into a classroom,” he said.

Local lawyer Tim Beppler, who has been involved in all the legal challenges against CKA, then spoke, which he has done at several hearings over the past few years. Beppler echoed sentiments expressed by others that, although there have been public hearings and then subsequent meetings when the board responded to comments made at those hearings, there has not been one actual face-to-face, back-and-forth dialogue throughout the entire process. “There has never been one discussion about whether we should have such a policy,” said Beppler, noting that instead a committee was directed to draft a policy rather than having a dialogue about whether that was the optimal step to make schools safer.

Beppler also told the board that it was not their job in a rule-making process to do what they believe the majority of the community wants, but rather, as an administrative rule-making agency, to look at what the available evidence supports. “A substantive rule has to be based on evidence in the administrative record,” said Beppler, “not on public support, perceived or otherwise.”

Beppler said he has researched concealed carry training requirements for teachers in other states, which include 700 hours in Ohio and more than 100 hours in Florida, both significantly more than required by CKA. Beppler then quoted current board chair Jami Brackin, who said in 2017 that she did not have an issue with teachers carrying guns in schools as long as they have training equivalent to police officers. “She was right,” said Beppler.

The final speaker was Andy Bailey, who said he, too, is adamantly opposed to the rule and said there’s nothing good that could come from it.

“It’s not a deterrent to somebody who is already deranged enough to shoot up a school,” he said. “I taught school and I cannot think of one fellow teacher I worked with who could have handled that burden in such a stressful situation when fear takes over and impairs decision making.” He said he feared “something horrible” would happen if teachers with limited training were ever in such a situation.

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