PIERRE | Despite opposition from the education community, the school sentinel bill is now just one step away from becoming state law after the House of Representatives voted for it Monday on a 40-19 vote.
The bill, which gives school boards the authority to allow armed personnel in school buildings, now awaits the signature of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who has yet to take a position on the controversial legislation.
The version that passed Monday also requires the personnel to receive training through the state’s law enforcement officers program before they could be armed in a school.
“This remains entirely up to the locals,” Rep. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark, said.
The House had previously approved the plan, but the Senate added requirements that said school boards must discuss the program in open meetings and decisions to adopt the sentinel programs can be referred to public vote.
Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, said the Senate amendments strengthened the legislation.
“It is now a better bill and I ask you to support it again,” he said.
Educators interviewed Monday remained unconvinced the legislation is needed.
Don Kirkegaard, superintendent of the Meade School District, said he has never been in favor of the bill and would have preferred a summer study session on school safety.
"We should be looking at the big picture and that may be part of the big picture, but it's not something I'm going to promote," he said.
Kirkegaard said a study session would have allowed educators to explore everything from facility designs to fire safety, all of which play a key role in safety. Such a session would have brought together "all of the players" for a more comprehensive safety plan, he said.
"I just wish ... everybody would have talked a little bit together before we started passing legislation," he said. "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."
Kirkegaard said there is concern about the provision in the bill that allows a decision to be referred to a vote. In small districts where as few as 50 people vote on school board elections, 10 people could feasibly refer such a decision to a vote, regardless of how a school has voted, he said.
Tim Mitchell, superintendent of the Rapid City Area Schools district, said the bill does not address the "broader" issue of school safety. That broader look includes how to deal with the mental health issues of students as well as facility updates, he said.
"We are looking at lots of different areas of how we can improve security," he said. "I'm not recommending that that (the bill) be one of the options we look at here in Rapid City."
Mitchell said he expects to find out more about the bill's effects on districts at an upcoming meeting with the South Dakota Department of Education.
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, urged final passage of the bill on Monday. She acknowledged that the education community is already involved in a conversation about school safety but said school sentinels require legislative authority.
Rep. Scott Parsley, D-Madison, asked for the bill to be sent to a House-Senate conference committee.
“This bill has had a lot of emotion tied to it,” he said.
Parsley said he had hoped the bill would have wound up in a summer study session. He said there are other possible solutions to concerns about school safety besides arming personnel.
But House Republican leader David Lust of Rapid City said a conference committee’s true purpose is to settle differences between the two chambers rather than to kill legislation.
“I think you’ve had ample time to view the amendments,” he said.
House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said school board members back home “have a million questions” about how it would work and that it would have been wise to study the issue over the summer.
Parsley added that school boards, superintendents and education organizations oppose the bill and want a summer study instead. He said that once again the Legislature is saying it knows more than school officials about how to run their schools.