CLARK FORK — With 20 law enforcement officers in attendance this week, Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School was perhaps the safest school in the Northwest this week.
The officers, representing 12 jurisdictions, came from Montana, Washington and all across Idaho, from Bonner and Kootenai counties and as far south as Pocatello, to participate in a week-long National School Shield Security Assessor Training course.
"It's all about making our kids safer," said Brad Kruger, regional director for the National Rifle Association, who partnered with Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and Lake Pend Oreille School Board Chairman Steve Youngdahl to bring the training to the area.
The School Shield training, founded and sponsored by the NRA, is free to participants and teaches law enforcement officers the aspects of school security by providing an opportunity to do a live assessment and observation of a campus. Throughout the week, officers will receive active shooter training, look at any possible natural disaster threats in the area, as well as learning how to assess every aspect of school security. They will observe the campus, day and night, assessing the perimeter, exterior and interior of the school. Kruger said it also teaches law enforcement and school officials how to work together to keep schools safe.
"What's so great about this is we are taking advantage of a great program that the NRA developed, and this is the first time this training has been offered west of the Mississippi," said Bonner County Sheriff, Daryl Wheeler. "We are very fortunate to get this caliber of training in rural Idaho."
The NRA has hosted five previous School Shield courses, with three in Tennessee, and one each in Pennsylvania and South Dakota.
Training began Tuesday with a short classroom briefing where officers asked Clark Fork's school principal, Phil Kemink, questions about the school and surrounding community. It was near the end of the school day for the students, so everyone headed outside to observe the buses and walk the perimeter of the school, taking photos as they went.
As students began to disperse for the day, Deputy Doug Goodman with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office said when it comes to assessing school security, to have formal training is "very important."
"This gives me both the credentials and the training to do those assessments," Goodman said. "I can come in, do the assessment and present it to the schools and they'll have something tangible, something real, that they can look at and say, 'this is what our liabilities are.'"
Another benefit, he said, is that he will be able to train other officers in Kootenai County to do the assessments as well.
Spencer Smith, Sandpoint school resource officer, said updated safety protocols are being put in place at local schools, so to be trained through the School Shield program will help assess and implement some of those protocols throughout the district.
"Anything we can gain on safety assessing and figuring out what we can maybe point out — any vulnerable places at any of the schools — to keep the kids safe, is going to be a bonus," Smith said.
While Clark Fork is the first area school to be assessed, Wheeler said after the training is complete it will benefit the entire county.
"The officers that are trained here are going to be able to work together and do the same assessment for every school in the county," Wheeler said, adding that assessments will be done in the West Bonner School District, the Lake Pend Oreille School District and possibly even Boundary County schools as well.
The program was started by the NRA in December, 2012, following the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults. Sheila Brantley, National School Shield program director, said the entire nation, following that incident, wondered what could be done to better protect schools.
Asa Hutchinson, who is now the governor of Arkansas, worked with the Department of Homeland Security at the time. Brantley said Hutchinson put together a team of experts with varied backgrounds in security, law enforcement, teaching, as well as several others, who "took a temperature" of the schools. After finding vulnerabilities at the schools they assessed, the task force made recommendations on how those weaknesses could be strengthened. Hutchinson's report was published in April of 2013 and can be found online at nationalschoolshield.org/media/1844/summary-report-of-the-national-school-shield-task-force.pdf.
The findings created a basis for the School Sheild training and Brantley said law enforcement plays a "big part" in the program because a lot of communities do not realize the resources they have with their local officers.
"When an incident happens you call them in, but are you working with the front end to prevent as much as you can prevent and identify areas that you can improve," Brantley said.
She said assessments are also a "big part" of the training in order to identify those areas that could be improved. And, she said, it is important that the schools are not charged for security assessments because if a school were to pay, for example, $10,000 for an assessment, that would be $10,000 less they would have to budget for any improvements needed to keep their students safe. The NRA has a grant program and once documentation is put together by trained assessors, they can apply for the funding needed to make security improvements at schools. During the School Shield training, participants learn about other funding opportunities as well, such as federal and state funding, as well as any local opportunities.
With the NRA founding and sponsorship of School Shield training, Brantley said there is some opposition to the program because they believe it is centered around armed personnel in the schools, but it is about much more than guns.
"When you talk about security, it's multiple redundant layers of protection," Brantley said. "Obviously we talk about the importance of SROs and armed school personnel ... we believe that no option should be taken off the table when it comes to protecting our kids, but that's a decision best left to the school. There is no 100-percent guaranteed solution to protecting a school, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach either."