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Eastern Oregon schools grapple with security questions after Uvalde tragedy


School officials and law enforcement talk about mental health and better coordination but stay clear of gun control talk.

In the wake of May’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, rural school leaders in Eastern Oregon met on Monday in Pendleton to review their security measures.

About 200 school officials, police officers and mental health professionals from across Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties piled into a conference room at the Pendleton Convention Center to figure out how to prevent a public safety crisis in their community.

The event was co-organized by the InterMountain Education Service District, which held a similar conference in 2016 following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg.

“This is the plague we have in America,” IMESD Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said in an interview.

Mulvihill said there’s been a significant amount of turnover in school administrations since the last conference, and leaders wanted to organize the event to assure the community they were doing everything possible to keep schools in Oregon’s rural communities safe.

At the conference, school resource officers shared their stories of near misses.

Union County Sheriff Cody Bowen, a former school resource officer, recalled an incident in La Grande where a planned school shooting was “common knowledge” among students and wasn’t broken up until a student came forward to administrators the day before it was supposed to happen.

“There’s quite a bit of stuff going on, indicators that we missed leading up to this, because the left hand wasn’t talking to the right hand,” he said.

George Shimer said he’s been a school resource officer in Boardman for seven years but was a teacher before that. He said recent school shooting threats from a student circulated among dozens of students before someone tipped him off.

“That threw me off afterwards,” he said. “One of those students was actually in my introduction to criminal justice class previously.”

The presenters went over ways to connect students with mental health resources, whether school districts should have universal language for lockdowns and SafeSchools, an app that allows students to report safety concerns anonymously.

School officials hoped to use these tools not only to prevent school shootings, but also suicides, bullying and custodial disputes between parents.

Law enforcement at the conference shied away from discussing gun policies, however..

When one attendee asked what the group should do about access to firearms, Pendleton Police Chief Chuck Byram said the Oregon Legislature was responsible for the issue.

“We were born in a revolution,” he said. “There’s billions of guns out there just in our country alone. How do you get all those back? The barn door’s open. How do you close it now? "

According to the Small Arms Survey, Americans own nearly 400 million guns. The U.S. also has the highest rate of firearm homicides among large, wealthy nations.

Byram said gun owners could focus on how to keep their firearms safely stored and out of the reach of children. In a later interview, he said he wanted school officials and local law enforcement to pay attention to the “red flags” that often predate school shootings.

“Do we have the magic answer for any of this?” he said “No, because it keeps happening again and again and again. All we can try to do is prevent it.”

As the conference broke for lunch, several members of the audience didn’t seem like they wanted to wait another six years before the next gathering to discuss the topic. Multiple members asked the IMESD to organize the event on a regular basis.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Antonio Sierra