‘To what extent do you harden a school?’ Few Idaho districts want armed teachers

The Garden Valley School District has stored semi-automatic rifles in safes around its school building — which houses about 250 students in pre-k through 12th grades — since the 2014-15 school year.

The number of guns and safes, some of which are in classrooms, is a closely guarded secret.

Superintendent Greg Alexander won’t disclose how many teachers and staff have been trained to use the guns, other than to say “numerous.”

“There are people who are nervous about ... How much do we talk about this?” said Alexander, who fields monthly calls from other school districts around the West interested in the safety protocols developed by the district.

Signs in the school parking lot and every entrance to the building make it clear that the school has prepared for violent threats.

“Attention: Please be aware that trained staff at Garden Valley Schools are legally armed and can use whatever force necessary to protect students and staff,” the signs read.

The safety measures for the rural Boise County school district, which is about 45 minutes from the Sheriff’s Office in Idaho City in good weather/road conditions, have created peace of mind for many parents, said Alan Ward, a longtime Garden Valley schools trustee. At the time they brought the guns in, they didn’t have a school resource officer on site; now they have a part-time SRO.

“We are a hard target. We’re one of the hardest targets around,” Ward said. “These folks (mass shooters) won’t come in where they’re going to be met with resistance. They want soft targets.”

In the aftermath of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, President Donald Trump has called for schools across the nation to arm teachers and staff against violent threats.

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, 19, who was expelled from the school, was charged in connection with the mass murder.

Garden Valley is one of only a handful of districts in the state making guns available to trained teachers and staff on campus via locked safes or by permitting concealed carry, according to a state school boards official and media reports.

Three of the largest school districts in the state — Boise, West Ada and Nampa — have no plans to arm teachers, officials with those districts said this week. All do drills, including lockdowns, to prepare for a variety of threats, including an active shooter.

They are always looking for ways to improve school safety. That can mean anything from school resource officers to controlled access to buildings.

Visitors to newer schools in the West Ada School District have to be buzzed in, and older buildings are being retrofitted to allow for greater control of access.

“You can spend a lot of time thinking about vulnerabilities that are not addressed,” said Eric Exline, spokesman for the West Ada School District. “That conversation is just hard — to what extent do you harden a school? Do you put a fence with concertina wire around it and make it look like the state pen?”

“The Boise School District does not support arming teachers,” the district said in a written statement provided to the Statesman.

The most effective way to protect students, Boise officials say, is through a comprehensive plan that focuses on coordination with local police, security measures, trained counselors and social workers, inclusive school cultures and communication with students, parents and community members.

The Garden Valley School District works closely with the Boise County Sheriff’s Office, and they’re using and directing the community to safety-related educational materials available through iloveyouguys.org.

The Idaho Education News reported last week that the Garden Valley School isn’t alone in bringing or allow guns on campus to protect students. Other districts doing this include: Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center, Salmon River Joint School District and Mountain View School District.

Fred Ball, director of the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center, said the school board discussed and studied the issue for years before deciding to allow concealed carry this school year.

“They wanted to make sure they did it correctly,” Ball said. “There are some very specific provisions that they have, regarding the training that’s required and the way the program is run.”

He said they keep it confidential who at the school is armed. Blackfoot Charter has about 610 students. Ball said the same concealed carry policy is also in place at another school where he’s an administrator, Bingham Academy.

“We’ve not have any negative issues, but we’ve had an awful lot of positives,” Ball said. “We’ve had multiple individuals step forward and pay any costs, including people who have said they will send our staff to this high-powered training in Las Vegas. That’s a pretty costly, world-class training facility.”

Using federal Safe Schools funds, the Garden Valley School District has spent about $5,000 for the weapons, ammunition, flak jackets and training (provided by former law enforcement officers) since it armed the campus, Ward said. Much of the cost was defrayed by donations.

Ward said Garden Valley hasn’t considered allowing concealed carry on the advice of its training experts. That’s largely because it takes a lot more training to gain necessary accuracy.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

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