Anyone who only listened to the opponents of a school safety and security bill Wednesday would think it’s a plot to expand state government so it can take control of our local schools and turn students into spies.
What was in House Bill 144, and if it was so subversive and threatening to our way of life, why did the Joint Education Interim Committee sponsor it in the first place?
The bill, which barely passed on a 31-29 vote, establishes a tip line for students and others to use if they want to report safety or security problems at Wyoming schools. It replaces a tip line the state already has in place.
What’s so scary about a tip line that it has nearly half of the Wyoming House members up in arms?
Well, here’s a sample of the concerns, straight from the mouths of some of the House’s most conservative members:
— “I’m all for bringing guns into schools and training teachers to protect students in case of an emergency, but not for creating a state bureaucracy.” — Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette)
— “What we’re looking at here — I can’t say exactly what book — is Orwellian of nature.” — Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance)
— “There’s a moral hazard to what this bill contains, and I just don’t think we’re gaining anything by putting this bill into law.” — Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo)
— “It’s really funny, what I’ve heard in comments from people who want this bill. They don’t really know what’s actually going on at schools. I always knew where my son and my daughter were, just from calls from other kids.” — Rep. Tom Reeder (R-Casper)
Confused? Let Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) explain why she opposed HB 144. This is the entire text of her remarks Wednesday, lest anyone think we’re quoting her out of context.
“I saw this bill and ‘surveillance society’ came to mind. We all know about NSA, everybody listening to our phones, reading our emails,” Halverson said. “Now we’re asking kids to participate in surveillance of each other.
“My son spent three weeks with a family on an island 90 miles south of one of our states. He tried to engage them in conservation about something that didn’t involve chickens and pigs. They wouldn’t talk to him,” she related. “It dawned on him two weeks into his visit that in every family there’s one or two people who snitch. They report everything that might be said against a regime to the authorities.
“I just don’t want us going there. Stop it now,” Halverson said. “Don’t let the kids get too used to being able to pick up a line and anonymously rat out their friends.”
Clem, during his second turn at the microphone, nearly broke out in song.
“There’s that old song, ‘When there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?” he said. “We’re saying call state government.”
If you’re wondering why there’s so much vitriol being used against HB 144 that’s usually reserved for the federal government, you haven’t been paying much attention to Wyoming politics these days. State government is perceived by the far-right as almost as much of a threat as the feds.
Given that legislators represent state government, they might be on to something.
But no Republican dares to criticize local control, because it’s always the best kind of government around.
“I keep hearing the words ‘agencies’ and ‘appointments,'” said Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman). One of the previous speakers said, ‘How about parents?’ How about local school districts? I would like to see [the safety program] more local.”
See what we mean?
Jaggi was talking about how a new School Safety and Security Unit would be created in the Attorney General’s Office, and the AG would appoint a director of the three-person staff. The current tip line is operated out of the Department of Education by one employee.
The new “Safe to Tell” program that will begin if the bill becomes law is modeled after a Colorado program that supporters said has been effective in stopping threats to students’ security.
Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River), a former teacher, said one of the reasons he likes Safe to Tell is because “it’s a system that doesn’t have loose ends.”
“When potential problems were reported before, they weren’t followed up,” said Freeman, who added the new program “will use all of the state, school and private resources we have” to improve safety and security.
Clem claimed the bill would create a $3.3 million program, but he was using a figure for hiring more school reserve officers that was taken out of the bill long ago. Supporters said when resources are shifted and the current tip line closed, the new unit will be close to revenue-neutral.
Rep. Jim Byrd (D-Cheyenne) said the program has helped reduce the number of suicides by Colorado students, and could do the same here. He said the tip line will be valuable because “Kids don’t come home for dinner and say, ‘Hey, Johnny decided he was going to kill himself today.’ I don’t think that conversation happens.”
“Frankly, I’m appalled at the conversation that’s in this chamber,” Byrd said before the vote. “We’re basically telling people we don’t want to hear it, or know what problems are out there. Don’t come tell us. We’ll all be sad after it happens, and we’ll scratch our heads and say ‘gee, we didn’t know.’… Because nobody in this chamber bothers to listen, those things will continue to happen.”
Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) said she couldn’t let Byrd’s comments go by without saying something.
The freshman legislator said around the kitchen table is where the interaction with families and friends happens, “and nobody cares more than the families.”
“I would urge you not to usurp that relationship and that local control, and allow this [tip line] to substitute for those face-to-face interactions. … We just need to keep things more local and more family, that’s where I’m coming from.”