Shocked by Sandy Hook, South Dakota allows teachers to arm themselves

A bill signed by South Dakota's governor Friday allows districts to create firearms-training programs for teachers. The program is not mandatory, but it still worries some educators.

By MARK GUARINO | The Christian Science Monitor

March 8, 2013 at 7:01 pm EST

South Dakota on Friday became the first state since the shootings in Newtown, Conn., to allow teachers to carry a gun into the classroom.

The bill, signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R), does not mandate that teachers carry guns. Instead, it allows any school board to create a so-called “school sentinel program” that involves the local county sheriff and establishes a firearms- training course for employees in K-12 schools.

Eighteen states allow firearms on school grounds, according to a tally by NBC News, but such policies are typically reserved for security personnel or volunteers. Only Utah allows teachers – who have concealed-carry permits – to bring guns in the classroom, though other states have considered expanding laws since the Newtown massacre, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers.

Supporters said that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary showed the need for such a law. Many rural South Dakota schools are located far from emergency personnel, they said. But the rigorous training criteria – which are the same required of law enforcement in the state – might mean few teachers take advantage.

“My guess is this would be, for many people, an investment of time along the lines of getting a pilot’s license, something along that line of difficulty,” says Gabriel Chin, a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law.

The bill’s main sponsor, state Rep. Scott Craig (R), said he started working with federal law enforcement officials on the measure in early November, and the Connecticut tragedy weeks later “only affirmed the rightness of this bill.”

School boards are not required to establish the programs, but 5 percent of registered voters in any school district can file a petition to get their local board to vote for the program.

“There are plenty of school districts that let us know that they’ve wanted this, and they’ve wanted this kind of provision for quite some time,” Mr. Craig said.

But some school administrators in the state are against the law, saying they would have preferred safety sessions in the summer.

“I just wish … everybody would have talked a little bit together before we started passing legislation. I don't believe there will be very many districts, at least to begin with, who are going to jump at putting sentinels in a school until they've done a lot of research,” said Don Kirkegaard, superintendent of the Meade School District, told the Rapid City Journal Friday.

He added that he would not promote the program to teachers or board members in his district.

National teachers organizations have also rejected the idea of arming teachers.

“Under no circumstances do we think guns are appropriate for schools and we continue to reject the notion that when teachers carry guns, schools are safer,” says Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. “We don’t think teachers are going to be packing heat on the holsters during math class. There’s a real risk that a kid could grab a gun.”

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