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South Dakota Passes Law to Let School Employees Carry Guns

RightMarch March 10, 2013

John Eligon at The New York Times reports:

South Dakota became the first state in the nation to enact a law explicitly authorizing school employees to carry guns on the job, under a measure signed into law on Friday by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

Passage of the law comes amid a passionate nationwide debate over arming teachers, stoked after 20 first graders died in an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. Shortly afterward, the National Rifle Association proposed a plan for armed security officers in every school, and legislation to allow school personnel to carry guns was introduced in about two dozen states. All those measures had stalled until now.

Several other states already have provisions in their laws — or no legal restrictions — that make it possible for teachers to possess guns in the classroom. In fact, a handful of school districts nationwide do have teachers who carry firearms. But South Dakota is the only known state with a statute that specifically authorizes teachers to possess a firearm in a K-12 school, according to Lauren Heintz, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Representative Scott Craig, a freshman Republican in the South Dakota House who sponsored the bill, said he hoped the measure would shift the country’s discourse on school safety.

“Given the national attention to safety in schools, specifically in response to tragedies like in Connecticut, this is huge,” he said. He added that, hopefully, “dominoes will start to fall, people will see it’s reasonable, it’s safer than they think, it’s proactive and it’s preventive.”

The law leaves it up to school districts to decide whether to allow armed teachers. It remains to be seen, however, if many schools will permit guns in classrooms and whether the measure will reverberate nationwide. Mr. Daugaard, a Republican, said he did not think that many schools would take advantage of the option, but that it was important for them to have the choice available.

While many gun control advocates are horrified by the notion of guns in schools, Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff lawyer with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that what South Dakota did would not spark a national trend. “For South Dakota to do this is less of a concern than if we saw it in Colorado or somewhere else like that,” she said, referring to states that have advocated for gun-control legislation.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the group supported the bill and lobbied for it in the South Dakota Legislature. “There’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to keeping our children safe in schools,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon state and local governments to formulate and implement a plan to keep students safe.”

The law says that school districts may choose to allow a school employee, a hired security officer or a volunteer to serve as a “sentinel” who can carry a firearm in the school. The school district must receive the permission of its local law enforcement agency before carrying out the program. The law requires the sentinels to undergo training similar to what law enforcement officers receive.

“I think it does provide the same safety precautions that a citizen expects when a law enforcement officer enters onto a premises,” Mr. Daugaard said in an interview. He added that this law was more restrictive than those in other states that permit guns in schools.

South Dakota is a state with deep roots in hunting, where children start learning how to shoot BB guns when they are 8, skeet shoot with shotguns by age 14 and enter target shooting contests with .22-caliber semiautomatic rifles.

“Our kids start hunting here when they’re preteens,” said Kevin Jensen, who supports the bill and is the vice president of the Canton School Board in South Dakota. “We know guns. We respect guns.”

Opponents, which included state associations representing school boards and teachers, said the bill was rushed, did not make schools safer and ignored other approaches to safety.

Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said he believed more discussion was necessary before passing this bill. “If firearms are the best option that we have, I’ll stand down,” Dr. Pogany said. “But let’s not come into a heated, emotional debate about this and say this is the answer. This is premature.”

Supporters say the measure is important in a state where some schools are many miles away from emergency responders, who can take upward of 30 or 45 minutes to reach some areas.

But Don Kirkegaard, the superintendent of the Meade School District, which encompasses 11 schools over 3,200 square miles, said that although some of his institutions were isolated, he did not see any evidence to suggest that they would be safer if teachers were armed. Mr. Kirkegaard said that schools in more populated areas have been most affected by shootings.

“The likelihood of it happening in our rural attendant centers is not nearly as probable as it is in the urban city areas,” he said.

But his school district, like many others across the state and country, does employ an armed “resource officer” affiliated with the police who bounces between the schools. Opponents of the legislation said they would be more comfortable with providing resources to districts so they could hire law enforcement to protect the schools.

It is unclear how many school districts nationwide have teachers carrying guns. Hawaii and New Hampshire do not have any prohibition against carrying weapons on school property for those with concealed carry permits. Texas’s law against carrying weapons in school includes an exemption for people whom the school authorizes.

The Harrold Independent School District in Texas began allowing teachers to carry weapons in 2008. Utah is also said to have teachers who carry guns in the classroom, though they do not have to disclose it publicly. Supporters point out that there have been no accidents in states where teachers do carry guns.

But a couple of recent episodes could leave some people unsettled about firearms in schools.

A maintenance worker at an East Texas school that plans to allow its staff to carry guns accidentally shot himself during firearms safety training last month. And a police officer assigned to patrol a high school in a town north of New York City after the Newtown shooting was suspended this week because he accidentally fired his gun in the hallway during school hours.

 

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