CHEYENNE – State Sen. Affie Ellis was a congressional intern in Washington, D.C., during a 1998 active shooter situation at the U.S. Capitol in which two Capitol Police officers were killed.
She still remembers hearing the gunshots.
“I heard what sounded like trash cans being clamored around, and then I heard kids screaming,” said Ellis, R-Cheyenne.
It was an experience she pushed out of her memory. But after completing the Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate training with Natrona County School District 1 in September, she said it came flooding back.
“I had a lot of time to think about that moment,” she said. “I’m a state senator, but my most important job is as a mom with three kids in school.”
With this in mind, Ellis proposed legislation – which the Joint Education Interim Committee then sponsored – to create school safety and security guidelines. The Wyoming Department of Education, in collaboration with relevant state agencies, would create the guidelines for school districts to implement at the local level.
That legislation, Senate File 64, was unanimously voted out of committee Friday and now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review.
In addition to requiring the state Department of Education to create prescriptive guidelines for districts’ school safety plans, all school district employees must undergo training that would prepare them for a violent intruder attack. The plans would be exempt from the public record.
Ellis also proposed an amendment to establish a school safety and security task force to give local stakeholders and other experts a say in the efforts. The committee approved that amendment, too.
The goal of the bill is to have school districts use nationally recognized school safety best practices, like ALICE, in developing their plans. To hold districts accountable, their accreditation process is tied to the completion and annual review of the security plans.
The legislation allocates $100,000 from the School Foundation Program Account to help school officials implement the new procedures and provide relevant training.
Committee member Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, raised some concerns over whether that amount would be sufficient, but the committee ultimately decided to move forward and treat the $100,000 as a test allowance.
Wyoming Director of Homeland Security Guy Cameron offered a potential supplemental funding source through federal Homeland Security grants allocated to the state, which school districts can apply for.
“School districts have taken advantage of Homeland Security grants, so there is a good jumpstart there,” he said.
Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees Chairwoman Marguerite Herman said the district was already well on its way to implementing a security plan, but for districts with fewer resources, this bill would be an impetus. She said it would be difficult to say whether the proposed $100,000 would be adequate for districts with fewer resources than LCSD1.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, R-Laramie, voted against the bill in the interim process, but supported it Friday.
He said during the interim hearing, he felt the bill had been rushed, and that it hadn’t received proper public comment. Now, after giving the public the opportunity to voice their concerns, he said the bill is in good shape.
“I would be surprised if there were any major concerns moving forward,” he said.
That public testimony included LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown. Brown raised concerns over the bill’s focus on intervention strategies and asked that the committee consider adding language regarding prevention techniques, as well.
“If we get to the point where we’re having to implement a lot of this bill, it’s been a bad day already,” he said.
Another concern Ellis said she has heard is whether this legislation takes too much power away from local jurisdictions by giving the authority to establish guidelines to the state. She said she hopes the state guidelines serve only as a floor and that districts feel free to go beyond those requirements.
Wyoming Department of Education Chief of Staff Dicky Shanor said the department will need to create a new position to coordinate the various elements, but State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is supportive of the bill.
This is not Wyoming’s first push for school safety. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill giving districts the authority to arm qualified employees.
Wyoming is not the only state taking legislative action on the issue. Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, 27 states have introduced more than 100 pieces of legislation addressing school safety, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.