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SD schools slow to use law allowing armed teachers

PIERRE -- South Dakota school districts can arm teachers, other staff or volunteers with guns under a new state law taking effect today, but officials say they know of no school that has taken formal steps to designate so-called sentinels to beef up security in school buildings.

The two top sponsors of the law passed this year said they have heard a few districts are considering the idea. Attorney General Marty Jackley, whose office is in charge of writing training rules for school sentinels, said a few school board members have asked about the program but no district has notified him that it's voted to use it.

The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, said he expects school districts will take their time in deciding whether to embrace the program.

"Some folks are going to watch and see what it looks like the first year," Craig said.

Also taking effect today are new state laws that revamp South Dakota's criminal justice system to treat more nonviolent offenders outside prison walls, prohibit beginning teenage drivers from using cell phones behind the wheel, and extend in some cases the waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion.

The measure allowing schools to arm teachers and others drew the most attention last legislative session.

Supporters said the bill could help prevent tragedies such as December's mass shooting at a grade school in Connecticut. Craig said that while law officers are stationed in schools in larger cities, some rural schools may arm volunteers because they are as much as 45 minutes away from the nearest police help. He said just the knowledge that an armed volunteer such as a retired law officer might be in a school could deter a would-be attacker.

"It's safety. It's the premise, the appearance of safety, that we protect that which we hold most valuable, which is our children," Craig said.

Associations representing school boards, school administrators and teachers opposed the measure, saying they believe putting more guns in schools just makes them more dangerous.

"We still believe the schools are extremely safe places," said Rob Monson, executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota.

Monson said he hasn't heard of any school district that's adopted the program, but schools are working to make entrances more secure and take other steps to improve safety.

Under the law, local police have to approve a school's program. Teachers and others taking part would undergo training devised by the same state commission that oversees the training of law enforcement officers. Teachers could not be forced to carry guns.

A school board must decide in a public meeting whether to arm teachers and others. School district residents could force a public vote on a board's decision.

The measure that seeks to cut South Dakota's prison costs came about with the support of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders. The changes seek to treat more nonviolent offenders through intensive probation, parole and other programs. Without the sweeping changes to the criminal justice system, the state would have to build a new men's prison and new women's prison in the next decade, they said.

Most of that law takes effect today, but other parts will be phased in over the next year.

The bill will use intensive probation and parole, along with expanded special courts and other programs that treat drug and alcohol offenders, as part of an effort to divert offenders from prison and prevent them from committing future crimes.

Jackley said he and other law enforcement officials agreed to the changes because dangerous criminals will continue to be punished severely. For example, the bill cuts the maximum penalty for drug possession while increasing it for making or selling drugs.

"The people we truly need to protect society from, we were given the tools to do that," Jackley said. "This approach gave us what we needed to be smart on crime and still protect the community."

Another new law prohibits beginning drivers from using cellphones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel until they get unrestricted licenses at age 16. South Dakota allows 14-year-olds to get instruction permits, the nation's youngest age for driving while accompanied by an adult. Those young drivers can graduate to restricted permits that allow them to drive alone in the daytime after six months, or just 90 days if they have completed a driver's education course.

The Legislature also passed a measure that in some cases could extend what is already the longest abortion waiting period in the U.S. Women seeking abortions in South Dakota must wait three days after seeing an abortion clinic doctor before they can have the procedure. The new law says weekends and holidays do not count in calculating the three-day waiting period.

Another new law establishes a state athletic commission to regulate boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Supporters said the commission is needed to oversee the sports because unregulated professional matches are often conducted without proper rules, referees, testing and medical personnel.