SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of a frightening gun siege during a school board meeting in Panama City, Fla. Tuesday, Utah officials on Wednesday reflected upon the delicate balance between public access to public meetings and necessary security requirements.
Sarah Meier, president of the Granite Board of Education, said she was "absolutely stunned" after watching video of Tuesday's incident, during which an armed man shot at school board members and district officials, claiming his wife had been fired from the school district. It is unclear if she worked for the district, officials said.
No one was hurt in the shooting, but the gunman later shot and killed himself after a confrontation with a security guard.
Meier, who has served on the school board for 14 years, said she has never felt threatened in that capacity.
"The frustration level in this country is high right now, but you can't close up meetings. You can't. It's the public's business," Meier said.
Sheryl Allen served 12 years on the Davis Board of Education and 16 years in the Utah Legislature. Such incidents could happen anywhere but school boards may be particularly vulnerable.
"At a school board meeting, rarely, if ever, is there security unless they're expecting problems," Allen said.
At the state Capitol, the Utah Highway Patrol provides security but visitors are not checked for weapons. "I've often wondered about that when no one checks for weapons and you've got those open galleries in the House and the Senate," Allen said. "It's a sitting duck sort of situation."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said security at the Capitol can only be spread so thin. "That's why some of us carry concealed weapons on the Hill," he said.
David Doty, superintendent of the Canyons School District, said his initial reaction to the video was shock, but said such events need to be viewed in perspective.
"When I hear about these sorts of incidents, it's sort of like you hear about shark attacks. I mean, they're very rare in the big scheme of things but they do give rise for concern and you have to take prudent measures."
Carlton Christensen, chairman of the Salt Lake City Council, said the city council has "tried to be a little more vigilant without it being too overbearing. I've think we've done enough measures we would have some options in a similar circumstance," he said, explaining that plain-clothed officers and security guards attend some meetings. On occasion, officers screen bags.
"I don't think an event like yesterday or the shooting of that council in Kirkwood, Mo., a few years ago go unnoticed," Christensen said, referring to a 2008 incident in which three council members and two police officers were shot to death in the Kansas City suburb. The mayor was critically injured and the shooter was killed by police.
Jim Bradley, who served as a Salt Lake County commissioner for four years and has served as a county councilman for the past 10 years, said he has never felt physically threatened in his capacity as an elected official,
"We've had some people who were unbelievably obnoxious but not to the sense I felt threatened."
Bradley speculated that there may be something about the general nature of Utahns that they "feel OK about speaking their minds, but taking things to the physical, no."
Contributing: John Daley