Sorry, Betsy DeVos: Guns Aren't a Bear Necessity in Schools

Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education is right that animals sometimes menace schools, but her solution doesn’t seem to fit the problem.

A adult black bear runs through Tualatin Elementary School yard in Oregon in 2011.
A adult black bear runs through Tualatin Elementary School yard in Oregon in 2011. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

The confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees have had plenty of wild moments, but none seems to have captured the imagination of so many people as much as Betsy DeVos’s explanation for why it might be wise to allow guns in schools.

DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, fielded a question from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, an outspoken advocate for gun control, on the matter of gun-free school zones. She responded by citing an example she’d heard from Senator Mike Enzi about a school in Wapiti, Wyoming, Enzi’s home state, that had a fence to keep grizzly bears out.

“I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said. Thus was whelped a sleuth of bear jokes at DeVos’ expense.

But it turns out the bear-baiting was misplaced, or at least badly exaggerated. The backlash is perhaps unsurprising: From the Mama Grizzly to Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s divergent approaches to the Russian bear, Washington has become a den of polarized opinions. Yet encounters with bears at schools across the country turn out to be a somewhat common occurrence—and as bear populations bounce back, particularly in the east, more schools are joining the cub, so to speak.

No example is quite so delightful as a 2015 episode at the high school in Bozeman, Montana. It turns out the bear was an early bird—despite the species’ reputation for sleeping at length, it couldn’t compete with the slumber of teenage humans, and arrived well before the starting school bell:

The bear entered the school through an open garage door in the back of the building at around 7:30 a.m., nearly an hour before school started. Students and staff were in the building, according to Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson. The bear left through another open door after about a minute.

The cub rattled around lockers, presumably looking for honey, and rattled some school officials. In a short video, a nervous voice asks the principal, “What do you want me to do, Kevin?”

But as the Billings Gazette reports (as part of its “Montana Bears in the News Series”), the animal eventually ambled out of the school on its own, with no live ammunition needed.

That seems to be the case for most bears’ scholastic excursions. In 2013, students in Montclair, New Jersey, were put on lockdown after a black bear was spotted near an elementary school. The bear was eventually found in a tree, shot down with a tranquilizer gun, and freed. Something similar happened in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the following year. That animal was “caused no harm,” The New York Times assured readers. In 2011, a bear cavorted outside Tualatin Elementary School in Oregon before being caught and released in the wild. Bears have been tranquilized or trapped when they got too close to schools in states from Connecticut to Florida to Idaho, though it’s just as common for them to simply clear out before anyone can do anything. In 1985, employees at a girls’ school in upstate New York tried to run one off but only succeeded in scaring it up a tree, from whence animal-control officials had to retrieve it.

It turns out that what motivates the bears is the same thing that manages to get many teenagers up and moving on a daily basis: “They’re after food and sex,” a Connecticut state biologist told the Times in 2005.

Sadly, not every encounter resolves itself peacefully; some come to a grizzly ending. In Irvington, New Jersey, in 2006, a frightened black bear scared officials, too, resulting in a lockdown of schools. But with the end of the school day nearing, it was decided that the bear had to go. As officers neared the animal, wielding tranquilizer guns, it became aggressive, and they decided to shoot it with a shotgun.

“It was for our own safety,” said the impossibly well-named animal-control officer Jim Osorio.

In 2015, authorities managed to catch a bear that had been menacing schools in Arvada, Colorado, but ultimately decided to euthanize her because of health concerns.

A deadly outcome is less likely in Wapiti, Wyoming, though. Urged along by DeVos’s comment, Politifact’s Lauren Carroll called up the school superintendent there, who informed Carroll that in accordance with the district’s gun-free policy, there’s no firearm at the school, and the anti-grizzly-bear fence seems to do the trick. What’s more, Politifact found that guns are often ineffective against the animals. If DeVos remains concerned about the threat of bears at schools in the U.S., perhaps she’d do just as well to forget the guns and instead a take page out of the playbook of the president she hopes to serve: Build the wall.

Unfortunately, the bears are unlikely to pay for it.