Sentinel idea met with reluctance by school board

By David Lias

Judging from discussion Monday night at the Vermillion School Board meeting, it appears that school sentinels won’t be part of the future security plans in the community’s four public school buildings.

Hours later, on Tuesday, the South Dakota House passed HB 1087, the “school sentinels” proposal, which will let school districts choose to arm employees or other volunteers against attacks. The South Dakota Senate will next deliberate the measure.

Under compromises hashed out earlier in a legislative committee, local law enforcement has to sign off on the plan, and any sentinels have to undergo more than 40 hours of training.

A portion of the bill that remained unchanged is its local control aspect, which was the focus of discussion among Vermillion School Board members Monday.

“The House amended the bill to require 47 hours of gun training, and also a decision by the school board to allow a gun or guns in the school, or who is going to be appointed to have a gun would be made in executive session,” Superintendent Mark Froke said.

He noted that all education groups in South Dakota appear to oppose the legislation.

“In Vermillion, I don’t think we really have a need for it, because we have the resource officer at the high school, who is also in close proximity to Jolley (Elementary),” Froke said. “Also, the police station is just as close to the other two schools (Austin Elementary and Vermillion Middle School) as I am.

“Of course, they (local law enforcement) are trained individuals who can respond to a problem,” he said. “The main thing I see is the possibility of accidents if you have guns in the schools.”

School Board President Chris Esping noted that legislative summaries that she’s read in recent days include many e-mails from several schools that are in favor of the school sentinel bill.

“These are schools that are far away from a hospital, or would have 20 minutes or more of response time for a first-responder,” she said.  “It (the bill) does give the school boards the authority, and that’s the other arguing point – that it should be a local decision, which I agree with.”

“Every school is different,” Dave Stammer, school board member, said, “and way out west, it could take 30 minutes before you get one law enforcement officer on the scene. In Vermillion, for our particular district, we would have good response within minutes, if not even less.”

School Board member Matt Lavin noted that Vermillion Police are constantly patrolling near the community’s public schools. “We seem to have a pretty good presence (of law enforcement).”

Board members noted that Vermillion is fortunate to have various law enforcement entities either patrolling in the community or nearby, including the police departments of the city and USD, the Clay County Sheriff’s Department, and the South Dakota Highway Patrol.

“For us, it doesn’t seem to be an issue,” Esping said. “I completely agree with Dr. Froke. I think it’s going to be a hot, hot topic across the state.”

“I do like the idea in this proposal that it allows local decisions,” Stammers said, “and that there is mandatory training. I think it has to be that way.”

“I still think that even though you receive the required hours of training, you still don’t have the experience like a law enforcement officer would,” Esping said. “They (law enforcement) are trained to react to these kinds of things.”

The talk of law enforcement led Stammer to describe a concern with the sentinel idea.

“Say there is a shooting, you’ve got two or three teachers in that school (with guns) and the police arrive,” he said. “When they see a person with a gun, they’re going to shoot them.”

HB1087 and other, similar measures have arisen in statehouses across the nation following the deadly shooting in December 2012 that left 26 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After that incident, local school administrators immediately reviewed security measures at the Vermillion School District’s four school buildings, and came up with a list of changes to be made to several of those buildings all with the goal of making them safer.

Suggested security upgrades include the addition of interior door locks on classroom doors in all of the district’s buildings.

Security upgrades will also include the addition a front door buzzer and locking system – similar to the one that’s been in place for several years at the high school – at the middle school and at Jolley and Austin elementary schools.

“We have the high school building’s front door locked during the day,” Froke told the school board last month. “That is not the case at the two elementary and middle schools.”

Other upgrades listed for the district’s buildings include placing locks on the gymnasium interior doors at Austin and Jolley schools, cleaning exterior door locks at the middle school, and additional camera surveillance at all four schools.

Suggested improvements to the high school include replacing and/or repairing existing door locks and repairing some door latches so that the doors close easily.

Froke also noted last month that Austin and Jolley schools – two of the district’s older buildings – need a comprehensive intercom, telephone and clock system.

“I contacted a security firm to come in and take a look at our schools, and provide some quotes for you to look at at a later point,” he told board members. “There are definitely some things that need to be addressed.”

At the middle school, for example, there are some doors that open to the inside off a commons area.

“In the case of a fire, you want the doors opening out so that kids and staff can move out of that area fast rather than pulling back on the doors to get out,” Froke said. “During normal operations, there are some things that you just don’t notice, but when you start taking a look at your facilities in terms of security, there are some things that stick out.”

How quickly every item that’s been identified will be implemented will depend on the total price tag.

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