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Kimball considering joining school sentinel safety program

KIMBALL—With increased interest in school safety after this past winter's deadly shooting at a Florida high school, a few more South Dakota districts are looking more seriously into the school sentinel program that is in its fifth year in the state and was the first of its kind in the nation.

Kimball can be added to the list of schools considering adding the sentinel program.

"In these times that we are in, we want to make sure our kids and staff are safe," said Kimball Supt. Tim Mayclin.

He said the school board in the district with 304 students has given him a directive to look further into the program, which requires written permission from local law enforcement agencies.

So far only the Tri-Valley School in Colton just north of Sioux Falls and Northwestern Area School in Mellette in northeast South Dakota are believed to be operating the program where a staff member is armed in case of any dangerous school incidents. Similar to Kimball, the Freeman School District has had discussions with its school board but no decisions have been made.

Mayclin said Kimball's lone police officer, Matt Bilben, who serves as police chief, and the Brule County Sheriff's Department, have given verbal approval for the program but written approval is needed.

Also there has to be an interest from staff and Mayclin said he has had a few of the younger staff members express an openness to being sentinels. There are a handful of National Guard members on the staff at the school and he thinks that could be a good fit.

The program requires 80 hours of training at the law enforcement center in Pierre at a cost of $700, which includes work on firearms proficiency, plus examining when to use force, legal aspects, weapons retention and first aid. There are also several requirements before even starting the training, including an examination by a licensed physician on fitness to be a sentinel and a look into the staff member's character and background.

Mayclin said the district and Bilben are also looking at another option involving grants to possibly hire a school resource officer, an option which the larger state school districts have opted for. The officer would possibly be in the school 3 to 4 hours a day and also join Bilben on the city police force to help in coverage there.

The school-city partnership is something Mayclin said they would have to budget for, but with all of the talk on the national level about the sentinel program and other school safety issues, he was hoping funding might become available.

Bilben said he's pleased that the school board is "intrigued, but cautious" by the possible programs to improve school safety.

"I do support the sentinel program" he said.

However, there are some detractors.

"I had a few calls from parents who were a bit nervous about it," Mayclin said. "But they are nervous about the safety of their children, too."

"It's a big decision when you allow a weapon on your campus," he said. "And the school board isn't there yet."

In the state's first district to implement the program, Tri-Valley Superintendent Mike Lodmel said that when it was approved in April of 2016, of the 3,600 residents in the district, only two parents and one employee objected to the sentinels.

"And I probably had 50 parents call in favor of it," he said. Ever since, although there haven't been any incidents in the district of 930 students, Lodmel hasn't heard any comments.

However, as far as teachers go, many statewide have expressed concern about the sentinel efforts.

Sandra Waltman, director of communications and government relations for the 6,000-member South Dakota Education Association, said the teachers' organization's stand is "we don't believe any guns in schools make them any safer."

"We think a majority of local law officers agree that more guns don't make kids safer," Waltman said.

However, she said the association does agree that "it's a local decision, if that's what they want to do."

Mayclin thinks the board will have more "in-depth discussions" about the sentinel program and "we have a long ways to go."

There are a lot of "little hoops" involved, including such other things as liability insurance.

Lodmel agrees. He said some other schools' insurers simply told them "no" when they wanted to start a sentinel program and asked if they could be covered for liability.

"It's more complex than just teachers carrying guns," he said. "It's up to each school, I believe. In our district it's worked very well. Our main concern was the response time as we were 10 to 12 minutes from any law enforcement."

The school does also have a resource officer, but Lodmel said he isn't there all the time and he was "100 percent" in favor of the sentinel program..

When asked how many sentinels there are, Lodmel said that is part of the privacy of the program so as not to give any possible criminal any idea on what they might be facing.

As Kimball weighs its options, Mayclin said he and his staff are working on updating a crisis management plan for the district.

That, of course could involve the sentinel or school resource officer program, but addresses other issues, too, such as school cameras, building security upgrades and evacuation plans.

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