Adding more guns to schools is not the best way for Rapid City to prevent or respond to a mass shooting, some local law enforcement officials said Tuesday evening during a safety forum at the Western Dakota Tech Event Center.
Rapid City Police Lt. Brian Blenner, who oversees the department’s school liaison program, answered an audience question about whether more firearms will be allowed to enter the school.
“We don’t believe that is a valid option for us,” Blenner said.
Blenner and about a dozen additional speakers at the forum focused instead on other approaches that the police, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and Rapid City Area Schools are taking in response to school shootings across the country.
The forum, which had an audience of perhaps 200, began with presentations from school and law enforcement officials.
Matthew Seebaum, assistant superintendent of educational services, explained the school district’s use of a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, or PBIS, to identify and deal with problem student behaviors before they escalate into violence. He also spoke about his office’s efforts to track students with chronic behavior problems, to support and notify their parents, and to suspend or expel students when necessary.
Seebaum said each of the district’s schools has a counselor, although their caseloads are heavy. He said the district is launching a pilot program with Behavior Management Systems at four schools that could lead to more mental health services for students.
Seebaum additionally spoke of the district’s crisis plan for responding to events such as mass shootings, and he said great progress has been made in recent years to secure the district’s buildings. That progress includes limited electronic access at all schools; keyless entry at nearly every school; secured, single points of entry at all schools; and updated security cameras at all schools.
Blenner, along with Sgt. Chris Hislip of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, spoke about the implementation this school year of a program called ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. All of the staff and students in the district have undergone ALICE training and drills.
Blenner and Hislip described ALICE as an improvement over past training that stressed simple lockdowns. ALICE encourages the sharing of information, the use of techniques to distract and disrupt shooters, and evacuation when it’s a better option than hiding, among other things.
“The best thing about ALICE is it’s option-based,” Blenner said. “None of this has to happen in order. It’s based on what that teacher wants to do with their students.”
Chief of Police Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Chief Deputy Willie Whelchel spoke about each department’s plans and preparation for responding to a school shooting. The preparation includes long-range assault rifles that are easily accessible to school liaison officers but are highly secured to guard against their use by others, Jegeris said.
Jegeris said there are 129 local police officers and 50 to 60 patrol deputies who are all ready to respond to school shootings.
“Each and every one of them is prepared to address the threat in an active shooter situation,” Jegeris said.
Whelchel stressed that local authorities take all tips about potential school violence seriously, even to the point that they have been accused of taking them too seriously.
“We’re taking it as a threat until we know it is not a threat,” Whelchel said.
After the presentations, a group of 12 officials from the school district and local law-enforcement agencies responded to written questions from the audience. Lori Simon, superintendent of Rapid City Area Schools, served as moderator.
One question asked about the safety of open-campus high school policies. Jegeris indicated those policies might need a review.
“The less people that we have coming and going throughout the day at different times of the day, and especially the lunch hour, the better our ability to monitor the activities around the school is going to be,” Jegeris said. “So, I would encourage that to be a part of the discussion as our community moves forward.”
In response to a question about whether the school district would support stricter gun control laws, Simon moved quickly to avoid controversy.
“I’ll respond to this one,” Simon said. “The answer is no, we will not. As staff members we have school board policy which prohibits us from taking any side on a political view such as this.”
Blenner’s comments about his opposition to arming Rapid City teachers came in response to a question from the audience. Blenner told a story about participating in a training scenario in which he armed a teacher with an airsoft gun and instructed the teacher to fire upon seeing a “bad guy.”
Although the teacher was proficient with firearms and had the airsoft gun at the ready, Blenner said, the teacher was not able to get a shot off before the “bad guy” shot the teacher. Meanwhile, students and other staff in the training scenario threw objects at the “bad guy” and used a swarm technique to take him to the ground.
Blenner said Stevens and Central high schools each have two school liaison officers, Rapid City High School and all the middle schools each have one, and the elementary schools receive visits from the middle-school officers.
With all of those liaison officers, plus other factors including ALICE training for school staff and students, law-enforcement response training, building security measures, and quick law-enforcement response times within the city, Blenner said Rapid City does not need armed teachers.
“Is that good for everywhere in the state? No, not necessarily,” Blenner said. “If you live in a rural area, I think your school district maybe needs to look at their options to see if they would want somebody trained in their school that’s maybe non-law-enforcement.”
The forum lasted nearly two hours until Simon ended it. She still had a stack of written audience questions, which she said will soon be answered in writing on the school district’s website.
After the forum, audience members Lisa Porisch and Nicci Jansen said they still have concerns about school safety.
Jansen said she would like each elementary school to have its own liaison officer, rather than sharing officers with the middle schools. Jansen also said she would like to know what preventative efforts the school lacks funding for, so that parents could help obtain the funding, possibly through grant applications.
Porisch said more mental health services are needed, and she wishes more counselors could be sent to children’s homes.
But both mothers were encouraged by what they heard from local authorities.
“I feel a little more reassured knowing what they’re doing,” Porisch said.