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Volunteer 'guards' prompt outrage at WBCSD meeting

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | June 23, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — The controversy started before the meeting even began.

Saying online threats placed the board in danger, a half-dozen or so volunteers were escorted into the superintendent's office at the behest of West Bonner County School Board Chairman Keith Rutledge.

As three to four dozen people waited on the sidewalks outside the school district office, and at least another dozen lined the hallway to the board meeting room, Rutledge engaged in a mostly civil, albeit sometimes loudly contentious exchange about the volunteer guards.

"I'm not saying nobody in this room accosted anybody, but there were people shoved and pushed … it was a serious thing," Rutledge said. "And when I look at the stuff online, and people are saying we're gonna show them who's boss."

While the police were at the meeting, Rutledge said he felt it was "too big of a risk for us not to have our own protection."

Rutledge said volunteer security team members, including several stationed at the back door throughout the meeting who wore communication devices in their ears, were not connected to any particular group, including the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Instead, he said they were volunteers who had seen the comments and offered their services to keep the board safe.

"It doesn't matter if they're armed or not," he told those packed into the small WBCSD district office meeting room after several asked if he could have them come out to show they were unarmed.

"It absolutely matters," one woman said over raised voices of concern.

Rutledge said that since the office wasn't a school building, whether they had firearms or not didn't matter, again causing the parents to object.

"It's crazy to have armed guards behind the door when there are mothers and fathers and community members in the room with you," another parent said.

Condemning the threats, the parents said that they could not trust that the volunteers would respond to any acts of aggression with the same training as law enforcement.

"They could take a situation where there might be shoving and to a much more higher escalated situation," said another parent. "You may say they make you feel comfortable but they are not under the same duties and obligations as our police officers and the accountability. They are just unknown people who are security."

While he denied requests that those gathered in the office come out and show that they were unarmed, Rutledge repeatedly ducked into the office to talk to the group. After a 15-minute, back-and-forth exchange, most of the group eventually left the room through another door and gathered in the lobby. However, at least one person stayed in the office throughout the meeting and the several gathered outside the back door also never left their posts.

Others said the presence of the guards in the superintendent's office — where confidential student and staff documents are stored — places the district at risk.

The board did not take action on Branden Durst's contract, but did appoint Rutledge and fellow board member Carlyn Barton to negotiate with the controversial choice to lead the school district.

Rutledge said the contract will likely be completed by Friday. It is expected that the board will vote on it as soon as Monday.

Durst, a former senior policy analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, was selected to lead the financially struggling school district earlier this month.

The selection of Durst as the new West Bonner County School District superintendent has proved controversial in the community with many calling on the board to change their minds.