by Amanda Fanger, Reporter and Farmer
Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently signed into law a bill that gives schools the option of arming teachers or volunteers. Local administrators and law enforcement are wary of the idea.
“Personally, I don’t like guns in schools,” Day County Sheriff Barry Hillestad said. “I’m not crazy about the idea, but I do approve of it in its current form, where every school and the people of that school district can decide – which is how it should be.”
On March 4 the South Dakota House voted 40-19 to accept the Senate version of HB1087 – known as the school sentinel bill – which added a requirement that a school board must decide in a public meeting whether to arm teachers or others. Another amendment allowed school district residents to push a school board’s decision to a public vote. The measure will go into effect July 1.
“I’m not in favor of it, but I understand where there might be a need,” Webster Area Superintendent Jim Block said. “If folks of the district or the school board feels this is necessary, I will support it. I would prefer there be no guns in schools unless we hired law enforcement officers.”
While specific training requirements are not outlined in the legislation, the South Dakota Law Enforcement Training Commission will be creating those requirements. Hillestad says it could be a minimum 80-hour training course that would be required.
Whatever it is, Hillestad felt confident that, “It will be a pretty intense training to qualify as a school sentinel.”
Hillestad described rigorous screening and background checks on an individual wishing to carry a gun in a school under this law.
“Not just anybody will get a hold of that sort of a position,” he said.
Despite Hillestad’s personal feelings on the subject, he says the South Dakota Sheriff ’s Association had remained neutral on the bill. Hillestad serves as the organization’s third vice president on the executive board. He said the SDSA originally opposed the bill because it did not provide forlocal law enforcement’s liability. Some of the latest amendments to the bill did cover that, however.
In Hillestad’s opinion, individuals selected to carry a weapon for a school’s sentinel program should not only have to meet criteria and pass training, he added, “It will have to be someone of the correct mind-set. Law enforcement officers have to think about (shooting someone) at the beginning of every shift. You have to be prepared about that. You can’t hesitate. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
Ideally, Hillestad says he’d like to see a former military or law enforcement officer as a sentinel.
“You can’t just find someone off the street,” he said, but added, “It’s not up to me.”
Waubay school Superintendent Al Stewart is opposed to the legislation that just passed.
“I am not for this law at all,” Stewart said. While noting that a law enforcement officer of any kind could be as far as 20 to 40 minutes away from Waubay at any time, Stewart added, “I can see how this could be enticing to some, but in my mind, it makes the possibilities of accidental shootings in school more of a risk.”
Along those lines, one major flaw that Stewart saw was the lack of liability protection for the individual schools. Law enforcement agencies, as well as those who train sentinels, are all deemed not liable according to the verbiage of the new law.
The new law states that schools implementing a school sentinel plan will have to obtain approval from their local law enforcement officials of their plan.
According to Hillestad, law enforcement agencies across the state are willing to work with their schools to create their sentinel plan.
The measure does not force a district to arm its teachers and a teacher could not be forced to carry a gun against their will.
“I would think there would have been better ways to go about it,” Stewart said. “I would really, really hope that before (a school) were to implement a sentinel program, that they would look into other alternatives.”
“You can’t have (a plan) to fit every school,” Hillestad said. “This just gives an option to schools.”
As long as the programs can be controlled locally, Hillestad says he isn’t in direct opposition. However, he says he would prefer to see a more comprehensive approach such as creating more secure buildings, raising awareness and taking preemptive efforts in antibullying and improving awareness of mental illnesses.
Hillestad says there may be some deterrent to would be shooters if they knew there were armed individuals in the building. “It may have some effect,” he said.
But with that comes the risk of accidents, he continued.
“I don’t think that you’ll ever see this in Day County,” Hillestad said. He guesses less than a dozen schools across the state will even implement a sentinel program as provided in the law.
Those who do, he thinks, will be the extremely rural schools that are in excess of 30 miles from the nearest law enforcement office.
It’s up to the school board if Waubay were to ever implement a school sentinel plan, Stewart said.
“It’s just awful hard for me to believe our legislators and governor would sign this bill when there was not one supporter of this bill from (schools),” he said.
Although the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Scott Craig, (R) Rapid City, claims to have heard support voiced from schools and administration across the state, the School Administrators of South Dakota have stood in opposition to this bill.
According to Hillestad, the Day County Sheriff ’s office has dealt with false reports of a gun in the Waubay school before.
Ammunition has been found in students’ vehicles at Webster Area before, although Block says there was never any imminent danger, and he speculates the bullets were intended for sport hunting. However, Webster Area has dealt with bomb threats in the past.
“We’re not immune by any means,” Hillestad said.
Within the last couple of years, a Roberts County man was charged for bomb threats at a school there.
Block has said that he will support a school sentinel program in Webster, “if we feel it’s necessary.”
Since the December shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, Block says nothing major has changed in Webster Area’s security methods.
“We’ve revisited our policies, looked at fine-tuning what we have in place,” he said. Block added that they do drills with the students and work with teachers on the management of students in case of a lockdown.
The school also does drills with Day County law enforcement agencies – including the Sheriff ’s Office, Webster Police, Highway Patrol and Game, Fish and Parks officers.
Emergency plans for Day County have been in place for an excess of 10 years, according to Hillestad.
“We’ve all worked and drilled on how to respond,” he said. He added that the various agencies are constantly reviewing and modifying their emergency plans.
“Things really have changed since (I got into education),” Block said. When he first started teaching, “We still had students come to school with guns in the gun racks of their back windows. Columbine is the one that started to change things.”
Hillestad echoed Block’s remarks.
“Ever since Columbine, this has been a nagging question, ‘what if it happens here?’” Hillestad said. “We don’t know where it’s going to happen. Society has changed a lot. The threat is real and we just need to do what we can to protect our students.”