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After sentinel law, guns still not mixing with schools

Pat Oleson, Mitchell's school resource officer, carries a gun and is a fully trained and certified police officer. A new South Dakota law would allow armed sentinels with less training to carry weapons in schools, but so far no school has implemented the program. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

MITCHELL -- Joseph Fox paused and did the best he could to describe his feelings about school shootings.

"It's horrific," said Mitchell Christian's superintendent, hired in July 2012. "It's 'Dear Lord, we pray that it never happens, ever.' "

About six months ago, a group of parents approached Fox to discuss making Mitchell Christian safer. It was during the same time the state Legislature was considering a controversial bill that eventually passed and gives schools the option of utilizing armed and trained personnel -- known as sentinels -- to deter and respond to violent attacks. It was also two months after 20 students and six adults were killed during a school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Fox supports the idea of having firearms at school to protect students from intruders, and some members of Mitchell Christian's school board agree. Yet the sentinel law has been a flop so far. Among 40 Mitchell-area schools contacted by The Daily Republic newspaper, none is starting the new school year with a sentinel in its hallways. The state attorney general's office says it has not heard from any schools interested in the program.

Mitchell Christian is the only one of the 40 schools contacted by The Daily Republic that is considering adding a sentinel.

"As we talked about it from a board perspective, our board was very much in favor of it," Fox said. "If it's a known factor that there's someone there that will protect, that may inhibit someone from trying to do something."

Some other superintendents are vehemently against the idea.

"It's one of the stupidest ideas I've ever heard and one of the most hairbrained pieces of legislation I've ever seen," said Burke Superintendent Erik Person. "I'm not trying to make light of the school safety issue, but the idea that we're going to pick someone on our staff and adequately train them to carry a weapon, it's a ridiculous notion."

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the sentinel bill in March after it passed both houses of the Legislature. The bill amended a law that previously banned guns on school property for everyone except law enforcement officers, and it took effect July 1. Many of South Dakota's schools opened this week.

For a school to get a sentinel, it first must get the OK from local law enforcement and approval from its board of education. The sentinel must come to the job voluntarily -- in other words, a school board cannot appoint a school employee to the job if the employee does not agree to it. A sentinel must also meet certain qualifications and complete 80 hours of training. A sentinel can be a school employee, a hired security person or a volunteer.

Following the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., at least 30 states have proposed laws that would allow teachers or others to carry firearms in primary and secondary schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In most states, the bills have failed, but seven of the states -- including South Dakota -- have passed some form of legislation to allow teachers, administrators or others to carry weapons. The other states are Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Liability concerns

Associated School Boards of South Dakota Executive Director Wade Pogany speculated the reason for the lack of sentinels so far is a mix of safety and liability issues.

"What happens if a weapon goes off?" he said. "What happens if someone is hurt? What happens if there is a shooting? Where does the liability fall with the school?

"We don't know yet if arming a person in a school will create more exposure for that school liability-wise."

In response to the new law in Kansas allowing school districts to determine if employees can carry concealed weapons on campus, the largest insurer of Kansas public school districts, Des Moines, Iowa-based EMC Insurance Cos. said it will not insure districts that allow employees to carry guns on school property.

EMC Insurance Cos., which also covers 60 districts in South Dakota, issued the following statement when asked about dropping schools' policies:

"Our policyholders have been able to count on EMC for more than 100 years because of our stability, and our underwriting guidelines play a large role in that. We've been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any onsite armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers. Our guidelines have not recently changed.

"EMC respects the choice of each school district to ensure the safety of their children as they see fit. We care about the safety and well-being of school children and have concluded that handguns on school premises pose a heightened liability risk. Because of this increased risk, we have chosen not to insure school districts whose policies permit handguns to be carried by non-security personnel."

Becoming a sentinel

Mitchell Christian is a faith-based, private institution that creates its own bylaws, but the school is subject to state gun laws. If Mitchell Christian or any other school wants a sentinel, it must first get the approval of local law enforcement. Since Mitchell is the seat of Davison County, Mitchell Christian and the Mitchell School District would need the OK from Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg and Davison County Sheriff Steve Brink. Both Brink and Overweg said they would be open to discussing the topic.

"There's a lot of ifs," Brink said. "A guy carrying a gun in a school, it could be good, it could be bad. If a school is interested, we'll sit down with the board and decide yea or nay, but I can see positives and negatives."

If a school board OKs a sentinel, it needs to find a qualified person.

First, sentinels need a concealed weapons permit. They also must meet requirements set by the state Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission, a group that includes Overweg.

Among the requirements are U.S. citizenship, being at least 21 years old, clearance by a licensed physician certifying the applicant is able to perform the duties, and a record free of the unlawful use of any prescribed drug or controlled substance within one year.

If the person meets those requirements, that person can apply for acceptance to the school sentinel training program. The course is two weeks long for 80 hours of training and is held in Pierre. That's shorter than the training to become a certified police officer, which is 520 hours.

The sentinel course covers first aid, firearm proficiency, use of force, weapons retention and weapons storage, among other things. The applicant must receive a passing score on all written and skills examinations. According to Scott Rechtenbaugh, of the Division of Criminal Investigation within the state attorney general's office, there has been no interest in the course yet.

"Administrative rules state we won't hold a training until there are at least five people," Rechtenbaugh said. "In the rules, if we're not getting five, and we only get two and we're not getting any more, we'll look at training them as well."

After passing the course, a school sentinel must maintain annual certification, completing at least another eight hours of training each year.

Overweg said the key with finding a school sentinel is finding the right person.

"I think for certain school districts, it's very fitting, especially ones that don't have a school resource officer," he said.

A school resource officer is a school-based, fully certified police officer who serves as a counselor and educator. Resource officers have all the same training as other police officers.

Those in favor

Fox says he or other staff members would become Mitchell Christian's armed sentinel to protect the school.

"I grew up in a hunting family and know how to handle guns," Fox said. "I come from Michigan where this wouldn't even be thought of. I appreciate the more common-sense approach that South Dakota has on some things, with this being one of them."

Fox said he's looked into getting trained, but ran into a dead-end when the South Dakota Department of Education told him there's no information on training available. He's now further investigating getting trained through the attorney general's office.

Earlier this year at a Mitchell Board of Education meeting, Mitchell resident Steve Sibson expressed interest in becoming the district's sentinel. He offered to become trained for the volunteer duty at his own expense. The board took no action and made no comment on Sibson's request. The district already has a school resource officer.

In a recent interview, Sibson said his lifelong knowledge of handling firearms makes him a qualified applicant for the position. He also attended the Mitchell citizens' police academy a few years ago.

"I do expect them to do something about it or I'll keep pushing the issue," Sibson said.

South Dakota Rep. Leslie Heinemann, R-Flandreau, was a co-sponsor of the school sentinel bill.

Heinemann, who represents Lake, Miner, Moody and Sanborn counties, supported the bill to give schools that don't have a school resource officer another option. Heinemann also supported the bill to bring attention and discussion to school safety.

When asked whether passing the bill was a knee-jerk reaction to the December school shooting in Newtown, which was a month before the legislative session, Heinemann rejected the knee-jerk characterization.

"From my point of view, when you've already got one of those programs in place with school resource officers, that's not really a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "That's just trying to fine-tune and find some other personnel who are willing to fill that void if there was a void."

Heinemann did acknowledge that the Newtown shooting was the catalyst for the legislation.

"It brought the question of school safety by politicians to the forefront, because some people were saying, 'What are you going to do about this in our school?' "

Mitchell not interested

Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves said he has no interest in getting a sentinel. He added that no school board members have brought up the topic.

Still, Graves thinks the bill was well-constructed because it gives schools the option for a sentinel if they choose.

"There may very well be some districts, especially in some very rural areas out in western South Dakota, that this could be a good option for them," he said. "As long as it leaves everyone the ability, I think it's a great bill. I think some people object to it on principle alone, but I don't, because it's a voluntary thing. If it works for you, great. If it doesn't, that's fine, too."

Graves said Mitchell public schools have had a school resource officer since he took over as superintendent 13 years ago. Pat Oleson is Mitchell's current resource officer.

In May, Oleson was named the 2013 South Dakota School Resource Officer of the Year. He has been the Mitchell Police Division's school resource officer for five years.

Of the 40 school administrators surveyed for this story, three said their school has a resource officer. Many schools in rural areas or smaller communities do not have a resource officer. Some say that's because in small towns, the school is so near the police station that having an officer at the school is unnecessary. For some, cost is also an issue.

Schools as battlegrounds

Bon Homme Superintendent Bryce Knudson said he's not in favor of sentinels because "it's not right to make schools a shoot-'em-up battleground."

"You can have all the security in the world, and if someone is dead-set on doing some damage, they're going to find a way no matter what we have."

Knudson feels there are better options, like enhanced school security. He was among several administrators interviewed for this story who said their school has applied for U.S. Homeland Security grants.

This year, the Bon Homme School District installed four keyless entry doors for $12,000 with grant money, allowing the school to be put in lockdown mode to keep intruders out if needed. Cameras have also been installed and hot buttons that immediately alert local law enforcement are being placed at secret locations around the schools.

"Another thing we do in Bon Homme is I've asked our law enforcement to be visible in our schools at least once a day," Knudson said. "They may have a cup of coffee, they may go visit with the secretary or walk down the hallway, but the staff and the kids know they are in the schools. That seems to work well. There's no designated time. Whenever they have a few minutes free, I've asked them to do that."

Earlier this week, the South Dakota Department of Education sent a template out to school administrators to help enhance and improve safety plans. The document was created by the state Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the state Department of Education. The DOE refused to immediately release a copy to The Daily Republic, saying the document has sensitive material related to students' safety and some information needs to be redacted.

Pogany said the Associated School Boards of South Dakota opposed the sentinel bill and instead encourages schools to have the Office of Homeland Security in South Dakota conduct an assessment of each facility's safety and safety plans.

"We're promoting that, and many of them have done that already," he said. "But I think the folks who were sponsoring the bill had all the best intentions of keeping kids safe. I don't think their motivations were wrong. We just have some concerns of school safety with a gun in school.

"Was it a knee-jerk reaction? I wouldn't say so. I think there was some thought put into it, but it's only one of hundreds of methods to keep kids safe."