Legislation addresses arming school staff

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 By Katie Zerr

The South Dakota State Legislature has taken the first steps in allowing school board the power to arm staff in order to bring a line of defense to schools in the state.

On Tuesday, Bill 1087, called the “school sentinels” bill, passed the House 42-27.

Supporters said the bill was necessary to provide security, especially in a remote, rural schools far from law enforcement. House members also cited local control in the bill, which lets each district decide whether or not to participate in the sentinels program.

The bill passed out of the Education Committee on Friday, Jan. 25 and passed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate.

Supporters of the issue say districts in rural South Dakota need to have a first line of defense in schools as sometimes help from law enforcement can be more that an hour away. They support arming volunteer teachers, administrators and other staff to protect students against an attack by an armed intruder tot eh school.

The Associated School Boards of South Dakota, The South Dakota School Administrators Association and the South Dakota Education Association opposed the bill. These groups said by putting guns in schools will make the learning environment a more dangerous place. They said weapons in schools could lead to accidents and gives students more opportunity to get their hands on guns.

Mobridge-Pollock Superintendent Tim Frederick said he understands the need to be proactive after what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

He said there are teachers and staff members with military backgrounds who could be trained to react to an armed intruder in one of the buildings, but he does not agree with arming staff in schools at this time.

“Teachers go to school to nurture learning, not to be armed in schools,” he said. “The focus should be on being more proactive and designing entrances with safety in mind.”

He said as he has researched safety measures since the Sandy Hook incident, he understands how arming staff would make a difference in some schools in South Dakota, but he thinks there are other paths that need to be explored before bringing guns into the schools.

“We are being reactive. The one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work,” he said.

The legislation puts the decision to arm staff on the shoulders of the school boards, but local board members Harry “Bingo” Kindt and Eric Stroeder aren’t certain putting guns in schools will create a safer environment.

“If you hire a trained officer to be in schools, that would be different,” said Kindt. “But the state hasn’t come up with any funding to pay for it.”

He said he doesn’t believe the legislation holds the answer to keeping students safe from an armed intruder.

“I don’t believe more guns are the answer,” he said.

Stroeder said he was unsure whether putting the decision on local school boards is the right decision and he is unsure whether arming staff is an option.

“I can see it if you had a trained police officer in the school but I don’t know if putting guns in the hands of  a teacher or an administrator is the answer,” he said. “I guess I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but I think there is a lot more downside than there is upside.”

He said he didn’t know what the answer is in this situation.

 

Community response

Frederick has put together an emergency response team that includes city officials, emergency services management and law enforcement. The group met recently to examine the response to an intruder event and the emergency needs of the district in such an event. He has also met with staff to discuss what their roles would be in an intruder situation.

“I feel confident right now with the Mobridge-Pollock emergency response plan,” he said.

Frederick said the plan includes asking the community to be more aware of what is happening around them and to report anything out of the ordinary to law enforcement. He said he plans to initiate a community-wide effort to educate residents on what to look for and how to be more observant in everyday life.

– Katie Zerr –

 
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