Last week’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, sent shockwaves across the country, and the tragedy’s impacts on Idaho’s schools and its students are a conversation set to play out over summer break, and beyond.
“We’re still learning what happened,” said Guy Bliesner, a regional analyst for Idaho’s school safety and security program, which reviews and recommends safety protocols at Idaho’s public K-12 campuses.
Bliesner’s not wrong. Emerging details have added to, and occasionally altered, the shooting’s “shifting portrait” amid the fallout, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
And the massacre at Robb Elementary School, which left 19 elementary students and two educators dead, happened on the cusp of summer break, leaving classrooms across Idaho and the country empty for the coming months — and leaving decision-makers with a window of time to assess, and reassess, safety protocols.
Still, the massacre conjured an array of quick responses from state leaders last week, from Gov. Brad Little to Boise district trustee Beth Oppenheimer.
State superintendent nominees from both major political parties also weighed in.
“Mature and sensible Idahoans of all political persuasions know that we cannot continue accepting the vision of twitching bodies and headless children lying on classroom floors next to their bullet-ridden and bloody teacher,” Democratic candidate Terry Gilbert said in a statement. “When I am elected Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will raise my voice to advocate for a ban on youth under 21 purchasing assault weapons or ammunition for such weapons.”
Gilbert’s Republican opponent also lamented the tragedy, but stopped short of calling for changes to gun laws — or mentioning guns at all.
“It’s a community problem. It’s a church problem. It’s a family problem,” said Debbie Critchfield. “We need answers that haven’t been thought of yet, and we need partners of every kind.”
Yet when it comes to shaping actual policy around school safety, decisions play out largely at the local level in Idaho, with local school boards.
And school safety has been on trustees’ radar for years. In 2018, schools across the state beefed up safety protocols amid a wave of threats after a shooting in Parkland, Fla., left 17 students dead and sent another harrowing pulse across the country.
Adjustments ranged from more stringent expulsion policies over threats from students to centralized access-control systems.
School safety concerns in Idaho boiled over against last year, when a 12-year-old student fired shots at Rigby Middle School, injuring two students and a janitor. No one died.
The constant threat has left schools across the country already “hardened” against shootings, Chalkbeat reported earlier this week.
One Idaho superintendent echoed the sentiment.
“In school districts across the state, including here, we have constructed security vestibules with bullet-resistant glass, cameras, buzz-in entryways, and have trained school resource officers in the hallways,” Jerome School District Superintendent Pat Charlton told EdNews.
Safety and security are already a high priority in the Idaho Falls School District, spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne stressed. “We are constantly reviewing our safety procedures, working closely with local law enforcement and making updates as needed.”
Shaping policies and approaches locally makes sense, since no two schools or districts are the same, said Bleisner. But the need for some statewide cohesion exists as well.
It’s one reason why the State Board of Education’s School Safety & Security Program developed, alongside law enforcement, fire departments and school personnel, a standardized approach schools can take during an emergency.
The plan helps first responders from various communities know what to expect at a school under duress, program director Mike Munger said. But it’s also designed to “fit within the unique context” of a school campus, according to the program’s website.
The program also includes a range of other resources for schools hoping to safeguard against violence, from state laws and rules to triennial, on-site school safety assessments to “identify areas of vulnerabilities” in facilities, “develop mitigations plans and assist in providing trainings” for staff and students.
For Munger, the program boils largely down to helping schools develop plans that effectively manage and mitigate threats and ensure people know what to do in an emergency.
For Bliesner, it’s about holding to those plans consistently. Schools should constantly ask, “Are we doing with fidelity what we’re supposed to be doing?” he said.
Munger acknowledged 29 recommendations the school safety program released for schools after the Rigby shooting, and said he and other analysts will watch the Uvalde news unfold closely for other possible lessons to be learned.
It’s all tricky terrain for schools to navigate, Charlton stressed. A school can have all the measures he mentioned above, “but that doesn’t necessarily prevent a student from bringing a gun to school in a backpack, so now you might only allow see-through backpacks” into buildings.
All the safety measures and looming concerns carry broader implications, Charlton added. “People still feel the calling to work with young people and help guide them toward a better life, but perhaps there is a certain amount of worry in the back of their minds about how safe they will be.”