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Taking a deeper look at school safety, student voices, and policies in place that revolve around weapons on campus

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens Police Department School Resource Office Jeremy Howell chats with Kaycee Leanna, a sophomore, in the hallway of St. Helens High School on Wednesday, Feb. 28. Howell is assigned to the school district full-time and splits his days between district buildings as needed.A school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead in mid-February has sparked a nationwide conversation about gun violence, school safety, mental health and ways to prevent future tragedies — including conversations in Columbia County schools.

In Scappoose and St. Helens, school districts have school resource officers on campus and try to engage in conversations with staff about school safety on a semi-regular basis. While most students generally said they feel safe at school, there is always room for improvement students and law enforcement said.

Mixed views on arming teachers

Students at Scappoose and St. Helens high schools held mixed views on the possibility of arming teachers to improve school safety. While some students felt giving teachers a way to defend themselves in violent situations was a positive, those students also felt it would be essential for them to have proper background checks and licenses. Other students said arming teachers would not make them feel safer.

"I feel like funding our school to get a better resource officer, or not necessarily a better one, but having more people on campus would be a better idea than getting more guns," said Luke Roth, a St. Helens junior. "Once you bring guns to school for the staff, it's like bringing more guns to school, and that's the one thing you don't want, right?"

Some students suggested practical solutions like having more than one police officer on campus at a time, fencing the campus, or installing metal detectors at the school entrance.

"Instead of training teachers with guns, we should train them with words. Like, if someone does end up pulling out a gun, instead of someone else pulling out a gun and shooting them, [teachers] should have some kind of counseling training so they could diffuse the situation," said Skyler Birchmen, a Scappoose junior.

Law enforcement and firearms trainers agree that proper training, not only in how to use a weapon but when it is appropriate and necessary, is a critical component.

Police Chief Terry Moss said someone properly trained can be an asset in a dangerous situation, but that comes with a major responsibility.

"A weapon in the hands of anybody who is appropriately trained and has the capacity to use it appropriately can be a good thing," Moss said. "But, I think people underestimate the responsibility that comes with carrying a firearm. If you are put in the position where you have to pull the trigger, that's going to be a life-altering event for you."

Concealed carry permits, licenses in Oregon

Oregon is one of eight states nationally that allows teachers to carry firearms on school campuses if in possession of a concealed carry license, according to data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit group that lobbies for changes in gun laws.

In Oregon, a person must take a class from a licensed instructor to obtain a concealed carry permit to legally possess a concealed weapon before applying for a license.

Scappoose and St. Helens school districts don't have policies in place restricting staff from possessing weapons on campus if those individuals are licensed through the state with concealed carry licenses.

From 2008 to 2012, the St. Helens School District had a policy in place prohibiting anyone, including staff, from possessing a weapon on campus, but that policy was removed in 2013 after the school board went through a policy review and voted to delete it.

St. Helens Superintendent Scot Stockwell said the district is not advocating for staff to carry firearms, but noted it doesn't have a policy specifically prohibiting a teacher from possessing one if he or she is properly licensed under state law.

The Scappoose School District follows similar protocol and has no policies in place that restrict staff who are licensed by the state to have a concealed carry license.

Scappoose Interim Superintendent Ron Alley said the district would require teachers who wish to carry weapons on campus to notify the school district, who would in turn be required to notify their insurance carrier.

To date, no teachers have made such a request, Alley said.

Both districts have weapons-free policies in place for all students, however. St. Helens Board Chair Kellie Smith said roughly 100 Oregon school districts do not have policies that make schools weapon-free for students and staff.

Oregon state law does, however, require weapons on public school property to be unloaded and in locked cases.

Gabe Caso, a St. Helens business owner who runs a concealed carry weapons permitting class and is a new instructor teaching hands-on training courses, SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A St. Helens Police vehicle parked outside of St. Helens High School.has offered concealed carry permit classes for two and half years. Currently, he is offering to waive fees for educators and school staff interested in taking the permitting class, and said several people have already expressed some interest. He sees the classes as an opportunity to provide more information about gun safety and concealed carry permits.

"I've always enjoyed volunteering. ... I thought, what better way to support teachers or protect kids? Whether that's through education or conversations with students?" Caso said. 

Caso said he has not seen an uptick in registrations for his courses in light of recent events, but said conversations around such issues are often heightened after major tragedies like the shooting in Parkland.

Safety on school campuses

Both Scappoose and St. Helens school districts use school resource officers, trained police who maintain employment with their respective agencies but work in the schools on a semi-regular basis.

In St. Helens, Officer Jeremy Howell is on school property five days a week, but visits each school on a rotating basis. Seventy-five percent of his salary is paid for by the school district, while 25 percent is funded by the St. Helens Police Department.

His day may consist of high-fiving elementary school students and handing out stickers to chatting with high-schoolers about bullying, drugs or abusive situations, Howell explained. Taking the time to develop trust with students is key, he said.

"I think students — especially with social media nowadays, with students threatening to harm themselves or upset at students making dumb comments — they feel comfortable coming to talk to me and talk to school staff," Howell said.

Howell said he is a major proponent of educating students and maintaining an open dialogue with them about their concerns, questions or general interests.

In Scappoose, the police department fully funds Officer Troy Gainer's position as student resource officer. Because of staffing limitations and budgetary restrictions, Gainer is only on duty part-time in the schools. Last year, his position was full-time. Gainer said it can be challenging to split his day between visiting schools and responding to calls for service in the community.

"Overall, having a full-time school resource officer, my number one goal is safety for students and staff in the school," Gainer said. "There's a very good probability that I will be in the school if something was to happen. But if I'm splitting my time between road [patrol] and school, it's at the mercy of what's happening on the road."

Gainer and Howell said they feel school safety is a complex issue, one that does not have a simple solution.

Stockwell agreed that solutions aren't simplistic. They must be about multiple resources coming together, he said.

Scappoose Police Chief Norm Miller added that monitoring safety inside a school is like monitoring a mini city within a city.

Additional resources for schools

School resource officers are only one layer of school safety. First responders, law enforcement and school staff have been meeting to discuss improvements to school safety and how law enforcement and schools should react and work together in emergency situations. Those conversations have been ongoing long before the Parkland shooting.

St. Helens hosts quarterly meetings with first responders like police officers and firefighters from the entire county to discuss all aspects of school safety, something Stockwell spearheaded early during his tenure with the district. School board members and first responders have praised the meetings as proactive and useful.

In St. Helens, the district and school board are also beginning to hold discussions about what safety improvements will be made at the high school, a promise that was made in the 2016 voter-approved bond campaign. One of the next steps will be hiring an agency to cond-

uct a safety audit of school buildings for further recommendations, Stockwell explained.

In Scappoose, Miller said his department has voluntarily offered suggestions to site administrators at each school building after evaluating the campuses for safety concerns. And during a Scappoose City Council meeting Monday, City Councilor Megan Greisen made it a point to express her desires to bring the city and school district closer together to assess ways to improve safety in all schools.

Greisen said she raised the issue Monday as "a way to invite the school board and leadership, to bring them all to the table to discuss with the city."

"We're all here to keep everyone safe," she said.

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