Idaho ramps up school safety measures amid threats

Longtime Idaho teacher and school leader Bob Ranells has watched fears of school shootings escalate in recent years.

“It’s horrible,” said Ranells, now superintendent of Wallace School District.

Yet Ranells, an outspoken educator with 45 years’ experience, doesn’t attribute most of the heightened anxiety to an actual increase in school shootings. Rather, he thinks ubiquitous images and headlines spread rapidly by smartphones and social media drive the jumpiness.

One recent study backs up his hypothesis.

“Schools are safer than they were in the ’90s,” a Northeastern University study concluded earlier this year, “and school shootings are not more common than they used to be.”

Still, Ranells acknowledged the seriousness of a shooting in his district, however unlikely. He and other local leaders have heightened protocols amid a wave of statewide school threats since the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., massacre, which left 17 students dead and sent a political shockwave across the country.

“Any threat against the district made by a student is now automatic grounds for expulsion,” Ranells said. “We want people to feel safe.”

State and local leaders are likewise beefing up school safety measures amid rising fears of school shootings and local threats, which swept through Idaho in the weeks after Parkland:

  • Feb. 22: Police investigated a school threat at Rigby High School. Jefferson County deputies later confirmed it was a rumor.
  • Feb. 28: Blackfoot police arrested a 14-year-old in connection with a gun threat at Blackfoot High School. Administrators canceled all classes the next school day and waived course finals for all students.
  • April 3: The Firth School District suspended a student in connection with a school threat. No criminal charges were filed.
  • April 6: Police were deployed to Century High School in Pocatello after an online threat made to a New Mexico high school bearing the same acronym, CHS, the Idaho State Journal reported.
  • April 6: Police arrested two Idaho students for school threats, the Idaho Statesman reported.

In Idaho, there have been several developments in the aftermath of Parkland.

On March 23, Gov. Butch Otter signed a law allowing prosecutors to pursue a case involving a threat occurring on school grounds or via social media. The bill also allows prosecutors to file felony charges against anyone who possesses a weapon “in the furtherance of carrying out a threat.”

On March 12, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra rolled out plans for her proposed Keep Idaho Students Safe (KISS) initiative. With an estimated cost of $21 million, the plan would fund safety courses and security grants, and hire a full-time statewide crisis communications counselor. Ybarra said she will seek funding for the initiative in 2019, provided she is re-elected later this year. (Click here for a closer look at the KISS initiative.)

Meanwhile, some rural districts are arming teachers, although most districts are pursuing other measures. (Click here for an overview.)

Here are other thumbnails from school districts across Idaho:

Wallace: The district hopes to augment its expulsion policy by capitalizing on its small size. Educators and Wallace’s 500 students are encouraged to get to know everyone, especially those more inclined to be alone. Ranells said teachers also encourage students to report all threats or other suspicious activity to an adult.

West Ada: Spokesman Eric Exline said the district’s newer schools — Hillsdale Elementary School, Star Middle School and Victory Middle School — already require visitors to “buzz” into buildings. Visitors report directly to the front office. The district also has a new check-in system at some schools that requires visitors to scan their driver’s licenses. The system then performs an immediate background check, Exline said. In addition, the district has retrofitted a number of older elementary schools for a buzz-in system that allows the office staff to see visitors before they enter the building. 

Idaho Falls: District spokesperson Margaret Wimborne outlined a number of new and planned measures, which she says predate Parkland:

  • Fostering student inclusion and ensuring that students have “good, strong relationships with adults and other students.”
  • Helping students feel empowered to share concerns.
  • Auditing of buildings by the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.
  • Implementing a districtwide universal “badging system” for visitors and volunteers.
  • Consideration of access-control systems in all buildings. Five schools have these systems, Wimborne said, which also allow school staff to “lock the building down with the push of a button.”

Pocatello-Chubbuck: A safety team discusses response practices, training and safety procedures throughout the year, said spokesperson Courtney Fisher. But national and local incidents have spurred further review of procedures and discussions about possible changes. Local emergency responders are part of the safety team, Fisher said.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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