Analysis: Ybarra’s school safety remarks don’t stand up to fact-check

School safety was a hot topic during a state superintendent’s debate Friday, and two of state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s comments don’t square with the facts.

Idaho Education News fact-checked Ybarra’s comments from an Idaho Public Television debate Friday night. Here’s what we found.

The role of the Office of School Safety and Security

The comment: Ybarra criticized Democratic opponent Cindy Wilson, who pledged to champion a no-cost school safety plan headed by the state’s Office of School Safety and Security.

“I am saddened that my opponent is not aware that the Office of School Safety is responsible for facilities. The state superintendent of public instruction is responsible for the people inside that facility.”

The context: Wilson has criticized Ybarra, a Republican, for hatching a school safety plan without consulting with the Office of School Safety and Security. Wilson says the school safety “debacle” is emblematic of Ybarra’s go-it-alone approach to the job.

The fact-check: The Legislature created the Office of School Safety and Security in 2016, Ybarra’s second year in office.

The law includes a clear statement of legislative intent. The objective is to “promote the safety and security of the students attending the public educational institutions of the state,” and to “provide recommendations, systems and training to assist public educational institutions at all levels for the safety and security of students.”

The law does spell out the office’s primary function: sending staffers to schools to conduct onsite safety inspections. Since 2016, staffers have inspected about two-thirds of the state’s schools. But Ybarra’s remarks suggested the office has no role for student safety; the law says otherwise.

The reaction: Asked for a response, State Department of Education spokeswoman Kris Rodine cited two other sections of law. One section assigns trustees to develop a safety plan for each school. A second section assigns the state superintendent, as a State Board of Education member, to enforce all rules and regulations “concerning all elementary and secondary school matters under the control of the board.”

Said Ybarra, in a statement Tuesday: “We have no interest in arguing about who is responsible for what when it comes to student safety. School safety is everyone’s responsibility, but we must coordinate our efforts to maximize the value of taxpayers’ investment in safer schools. There’s no such thing as having too much of a focus on school safety, or too many advocates for protecting children.”

The safety plan’s rollout

The comment: Ybarra said she had tipped off lawmakers about her plan to unveil a school safety plan. Specifically, she said she had told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that she had a plan in the works.

The context: The Office of School Safety and Security and other education groups say Ybarra blindsided them in March, when she unveiled her Keep Idaho Students Safe plan. Ybarra has said her plan has long been in the works — with input from other education groups.

The fact-check: Idaho Education News reviewed the video archive from Ybarra’s Jan. 25 presentation to JFAC. Ybarra hinted at something — but not overtly a school safety plan.

Ybarra suggested the state needs to declare a “war on bullying,” with a campaign similar to anti-smoking or anti-drug efforts. “I just wanted to plant the seed that we are working on efforts that you may see again next year,” Ybarra told budget-writers.

Certainly, there’s a common ground between anti-bullying efforts and creating a safe learning environment. But Ybarra’s JFAC remarks only referenced bullying. She did not foreshadow a school safety plan. Nor did she hint at the cost, which could exceed $20 million.

The reaction: Rodine again said the KISS plan was an outgrowth of Ybarra’s anti-bullying initiative. She pointed to an October 2017 news release that again referenced a “war on bullying,” but not school safety.

Ybarra toned down the “war on bullying” label at the suggestion of her parental advisory committee, Rodine said.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

More reading: Click here for more analysis of Friday’s Ybarra-Wilson debate.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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