Students flanked by opposing viewpoints on how to make Rapid City’s public schools safer will use a 17-minute walkout Wednesday to honor shooting victims and voice the need for stricter gun control.
Rapid City Area Schools will allow students to use a gym or commons area at 10 a.m. Wednesday to join a national movement to protest congressional inaction on gun violence.
But those in opposition to the walkout say the district is allowing student truancy, creating a potentially dangerous situation and stifling a conversation about whether staff members should have the opportunity to carry weapons and be trained for active-shooter scenarios.
“It would be really nice to have a calm, rational discussion,” said Elden Rice, parent of a Stevens High School student and president of Citizens for Academic Transparency. “The school doesn’t want to talk about it. Let the community decide.”
When gun control law was brought up during last week’s school safety community forum, which included a panel of law enforcement personnel, Rapid City Schools Superintendent Lori Simon said policy prohibits staff from taking sides in political issues.
Law enforcement on the panel, however, said a combination of liaison officers, ALICE training, law enforcement response training, building security measures, and quick law enforcement response times is adequate.
But Scott Craig, a former legislator and sponsor of the 2013 Sentinel Law, disagrees. The law allows a school board to arm employees, hired personnel or volunteers and designate them as school sentinels.
“The bill wasn’t to arm teachers,” Craig said, adding that it was created to give schools or law enforcement the ability to decide who — if anyone — should be armed.
The local sheriff would have to approve a sentinel, who would undergo the same training as a law enforcement officer for an active-shooter situation. If a district doesn’t have an armed liaison officer in every school, as is the case in Rapid City, Craig said, a sentinel is a great tool.
“ALICE offers a false sense of security,” he said. “The idea that you could teach children to protect themselves with markers and erasers you throw at the bad guy, that it is somehow better than taking an adult and giving them law enforcement-level training is not right.”
Human nature will kick in during an active-shooter situation, Craig said.
“The moment (students) hear actual gunfire, they’re going to freeze or duck and cover unless you train it out of them, which is what can only be done in law enforcement or the military."
Craig said a scenario at the forum about a teacher in a practice situation being armed with an air gun and still getting shot was not an accurate example of a trained sentinel.
“That was a very poor example and unfair to the teacher,” Craig said. “That’s not what you do. You don’t just put a gun in their hand.”
But Stevens High School student Autumn Knight, 17, said she doesn’t want more guns in her school.
“The threat of guns is so prevalent that it is nearly impossible to be in a public space while feeling secure,” she said. “Until this threat of firearms is defused by strict gun control and possibly a ban on assault rifles, this generation will not stop working to create a safer society.”
Matt Seebaum, assistant superintendent of Educational Services for the district, said it wasn’t appropriate to host a debate about the Sentinel Law last week.
“It was never billed as a debate,” he said. “There was not an agenda. When that question came up, we’re bound by policy not to take a position on politically polarizing issues.”
That conversation, he said, needs to originate with the school board. As for the walkout, it was the best option, he added.
“It’s challenging,” he added. “Students do have a right to free speech in the school. We’ve run this through law enforcement, national and legal counsel and we’re on solid ground.”
The mandate to staff is clear on the gun control debate.
“Don’t take a side on this,” he said. “Don’t preach in class. Let students drive the discussion and we’ll be at a place where they can have that conversation.”
School board member Katharine Thomas said politics are at the heart of the walkout and wondered if the district will make exceptions for other student-led protests.
“How about pro-gun statements?” she said. “I worry we are now setting a precedent that allows disruption to education for any political statements.”
She is in favor of sentinels and hoping for more conversation.
“We should start valuing our kids like they are money in the bank, jewels in a diamond store, and priceless works of art in a museum,” she said. “Every one of those places are heavily guarded. The least we can do is have the conversation about the changes we need.”