Alaska News

Governor assembles working group to address school safety in Alaska after Florida shooting

Gov. Bill Walker has convened a working group to review school safety in Alaska and recommend changes to prevent violence like the shooting at a Florida high school in February that left 17 dead.

"Are we doing enough and is there more we can do that makes sense?" Walker said in an interview Wednesday.

Walker on Monday held a preliminary, hour-long meeting to hear from educators, school security officials, gun rights advocates and others from around the state. They shared ideas with members of his cabinet.

From that, Walker said he created an "internal working group" that includes commissioners Michael Johnson of Education and Walt Monegan of Public Safety, plus Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

They'll assemble recommendations that districts and state leaders can act on, he said.

"There's no idea I don't want to hear about," said Walker. "It's all about keeping the kids safe."

Monegan said Wednesday the group will gather information about what schools nationwide are doing to enhance security and identify potentially violent people before they act out.

In Alaska, the working group will listen to counselors, educators, police officers and tribal and community members from across the state to find potential solutions, he said. The group can advocate for policy change, and funding, if needed.

"The more involved a community is the safer it will be," Monegan said.

School violence can happen in villages or big cities, he said.

In 1997, Evan Ramsey, 16, fatally shot two people and wounded two others after bringing a shotgun to his rural high school in Bethel in Southwest Alaska.

One key solution will involve communication between educators, students, parents, mental health officials, police and others to identify individuals that might raise warning signs on social media or elsewhere.

"I don't want to see us turn into a paranoid society," he said. "I want to see us turn into a cohesive society."

Deena Bishop, superintendent of Anchorage School District, was part of the discussion Monday.

She said Walker shared ideas he'd heard at a recent meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., about steps other states are considering, said Bishop. Some are discussing arming trained teachers, others oppose the idea, Walker told the group, according to Bishop.

In some states, schools are strengthening partnerships with law enforcement and military veterans to enhance security, Bishop said.

"There were no decisions or promises made," she said.

Walker said he didn't endorse any idea during the discussion.

Joe Schmidt, head of security, safety and emergency preparedness at the Anchorage district, was also part of Monday's meeting.

Schmidt said the district is reviewing its schools to identify ways students can quickly evacuate to escape a shooter.

Hearing what other districts are doing can help boost school safety, he said.

"Increasing the number of people involved in discussing egress and quick evacuation would be helpful," he said. "The more ideas we can share the safer schools can be."

Walker said Alaska is a strong supporter of gun rights, so it was important to make sure the National Rifle Association was part of the discussion.

Wayne Anthony Ross, an Anchorage attorney and NRA board member, said he recommended Monday that properly trained teachers should have the right to be armed in schools to protect themselves and students, if they wish.

"Bad people are attracted to places where good people don't have guns," Ross said.