In the wake of school shootings, candidates stake out differences on safety

Student protesters helped convince the Idaho Legislature to pass a new school safety law, Lt. Gov. Brad Little said Monday.

Tommy Ahlquist, one of Little’s rivals in the Republican gubernatorial race, says these same protesters need to brush up on the Constitution.

This isn’t the only schism on the looming issue of school safety. But when it comes to gun control and arming teachers, the five leading candidates for governor split along partisan lines.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school — and student-led protests at the Statehouse and across the country — Idaho Education News surveyed the gubernatorial candidates on school safety. Specifically, Idaho Education News posed questions on student protests, gun control, “hardening” schools and arming teachers, and bullying.

Responses varied. Only Little consented to an interview. Ahlquist and Democratic candidates A.J. Balukoff and Paulette Jordan responded with lengthy emails. Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador responded with a brief statement that did not address the protests or gun control.

Here are summaries of what the candidates had to say. (For more detail, click on the candidate’s name to download their statements in full.)

Tommy Ahlquist

Tommy Ahlquist

The Boise developer and physician favors hardening school targets. He encourages schools to allow their staff to carry concealed weapons — a local decision already allowed under state law. He also says the state should “look at” placing school resource officers in every school.

But Ahlquist says gun control is not the answer to the school safety issue. And he says student protesters have missed this point.

“While participating in civil discourse is always good to see and is part of our First Amendment rights, I think in this case it is misguided and in some cases stoked by others to advance their political agenda on impressionable young students,” he wrote. “What is more disheartening is seeing what appears to be a failure to teach some of our students history, our constitutional rights, and how to differentiate between a symptom and disease.”

Raul Labrador

Raul Labrador

Saying schools have become “soft targets for evil people determined to harm our children,” Labrador doubled down on the existing state law allowing armed teachers. “As governor I will encourage school districts to approve additional policies that will permit teachers and administrators to carry firearms.”

Labrador’s statement, provided Monday, does not address gun control. But in a March 2 letter to constituents, originating from his congressional office, he decried the gun control “narrative” that emerged after the Florida shootings.

“Liberals, because of their worldview, cannot conceive that “more guns’ equals ‘less crime,’ because that would mean self-reliant Americans don’t need bigger government’” Labrador wrote. “What liberals propose instead, is a trade-off: Give up your gun rights and the government will protect you.”

Brad Little

Brad Little

Little says schools should still have the option to allow armed staffers — but he says this should remain a local decision. Armed staffers must receive extensive training beforehand, but even training might not be enough. “You’ve got to have the instincts to do the right thing at the right time.”

Little says there is a big difference between hiring an SRO in an urban district and hiring one in a rural district — and he says the state can’t afford to station an officer in every school in the state.

Little says the state’s existing restrictions on guns in schools are adequate. But he doesn’t criticize the student protesters who have come to the Statehouse demanding action on gun control. The demonstrators played a key role in the campaign for House Bill 665, a new law that will allow prosecutors to pursue cases involving school threats made over social media. “Good for them,” Little said Monday.

A.J. Balukoff

A.J. Balukoff

The longtime Boise school trustee favors his district’s multi-tiered approach to school safety — working with local police, physical security measures, hiring trained staff, creating a respectful school culture and communicating with parents, students and the community. And he agrees with the district on another point; he says teachers should not be “burdened” with the task of school security.

Instead, he favors putting money into hiring staffers who are trained for the job. “The state doesn’t offer our schools the resources they need to have an all-hands-on-deck approach from SROs to social workers to counselors,” Balukoff wrote. “I would support providing additional safety resources to Idaho schools.”

On gun control, Balukoff favors a balance between upholding the Second Amendment and passing controls such as universal background checks. “There’s a place for smart policies to keep our schools safe,” he said.

Paulette Jordan

Paulette Jordan

Like Balukoff, Jordan calls the student demonstrations inspiring. But she also says political leaders need to listen to students’ calls for action.

“I believe Idaho has done a great job creating learning environments where our students feel safe,” Jordan wrote. “As governor, I would continue to take the steps necessary to improve the areas that need it. Right now that’s addressing the gun safety issue.”

Jordan says she favors universal background checks and a ban on bump stocks, a device used in the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music festival in October.

Jordan is also skeptical about arming school staff. “It is not our teachers’ jobs to be security officers. They are paid to be educators, and shouldn’t be forced into shouldering such an immense responsibility. I don’t believe this is the solution to improving school safety.”

More reading: Check out Idaho Education News’ election page for in-depth campaign coverage.

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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