As students waft sage into their faces during a morning ceremony to start the Friday school day at Wolf Creek Middle, Superintendent Anthony Fairbanks recalls the day thirteen years earlier when violence last visited a school he knew well.
"That was just a normal, typical day. Who would've known?" said Fairbanks, who prior to coming to South Dakota served as an elementary principal in Red Lake, Minn. While he was away for a year pursuing his doctorate in 2005, a 16-year-old shot his grandfather, a tribal police officer, took his guns and Kevlar vest to Red Lake Senior High School and killed seven people, including Fairbanks' cousin, the security guard.
"He wasn't even armed," said Fairbanks, standing in the circular activity room at Wolf Creek, a 6th through 8th grade building currently housed in the SuAnne Big Crow Youth Development Center two miles east of Pine Ridge on Highway 18. "And the police were just a block away."
"The data shows these things happen too much," said Fairbanks. "It's our responsibility to keep them out."
Five years after South Dakota legislators passed Sentinel, a program that trains educational staff, including teachers, to carry firearms, a cloud of secrecy still pervades public information on which schools within the state have opted into the law. The state discloses four schools. But many schools are hesitant to share information. Not so, however, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with the Oglala Lakota County School District. The K-8 district has the most sentinel-trained officers in the state with four.
"I feel great about this," said Brian Brewer, school board president for Oglala Lakota District. "We really pushed for this. I was always worried about our children. That something bad could happen to them. Now, God forbid if something does, we can say we did everything possible."
No teacher carries firearms yet. But the district's armed security resource officers carry Glock 17s. Officials also say locked 800-pound safes sit in each of the district's five schools (the fifth school is an online high school) containing a semi-automatic AR-15.
"I even feel better about that," said Brewer, a former principal at Pine Ridge High School down the road. "People come in with automatic weapons at most of these shootings, and we have pistols. How do you stand up to an automatic weapon with a pistol? So we went a little beyond, and long-rifles are now available."
Gang violence a worry
Next summer the district plans to send more security officers, maybe as many as 10, including administrators, to the two-week Sentinel training held by the Division of Criminal Investigation in Pierre.
"I want to be part of this, too," said Connie Kaltenbach, curriculum director, who said she wears "many hats" as an administrator at the school. "We need to be prepared."
While in the aftermath of high-profile school shootings in Florida, the Sentinel debate was revved up again at many districts across South Dakota, officials at Pine Ridge stress they made an individual decision based upon their own school district. At a training held without notice at Rockyford School, an elementary school in the Badlands, tribal law enforcement needed 22 minutes to respond. School officials also say they're concerned about violence stemming from gangs.
"Our hallways had bullet holes in them at the high school," said Brewer, speaking of his time as Pine Ridge High School principal. "We were worried about students bringing guns to school and getting involved in gang things."
The memory of violence can be personal for many. Two years ago, Brewer's nephew was murdered in gang violence outside the SuAnne Big Crow Center, before the Wolf Creek School was temporarily housed in the center due to construction of a new high school.
"That was just right there," said J.L. Trueblood. "What might've happened if there were an armed guard nearby?"
In 2013, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law a bill pulled from the NRA's talking points in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Shooting. Called "School Sentinel," the program legalized the arming of school employees, security personnel, or volunteers, given they undergo training and pass a background check.
But Superintendent Fairbanks laughs when asked about bumper stickers — frequent in western South Dakota — advertising unqualified support for gun rights.
"This is not even connected to that," said Fairbanks. "If something happens, we just want to be ready to face it. So far there have been 57 school shootings in the country. That's 57 times too many in my book."
Armed guards are also only part of the solution at Oglala Lakota District, Fairbanks said. Cameras outfit the buildings. A security assessment from a local team analyzed entrances and exits. And the school implemented ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate) training.
Part of a child's education
On a recent Friday morning on the road between Pine Ridge and Batesland, in this school surrounded by cow-dotted hills and within view of the Nebraska border, children ran laughing with arms raised out of the school's doors and head toward the road. Two students straggled a little behind.
"Come on, buddy!" yelled Jesse Trueblood, a security officer.
The boys pick up their feet and start running, a mix of gym class obligations and a twice-a-school-year training. Eighth graders had been in study hall, a few using school-issued tablets to research the history of tribes across the nation, when the first alarm bell sounded for the planned Friday-morning ALICE training.
"This is just part of our education now," said Jewelia Lebeau, 8th grader at Wolf Creek. "But it's just to keep us safe."
"We take it seriously," said Shayonna Waters, also an 8th grader. "It's a good thing knowing that J.L. has, like, an armed weapon on in case of anything."
Other districts who have publicly acknowledged opting in on Sentinel include Tri Valley School District west of Sioux Falls and the Northwestern Area School District south of Aberdeen. Rapid City Area Schools, the state's second largest district and about 90 minutes from Pine Ridge, has unarmed security staff on its campuses and a relationship with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office for deputized school resource officers to also patrol campuses.
One concern stated by the district is its insurance provider has threatened to pull coverage if teachers would be armed. Superintendent Fairbanks said, however, this was not a concern as the school resource officers, not teachers, would carry firearms. Moreover, while the training authorized by the legislature in 2013 requires 80 hours of training, NRA handgun training and an entire day on civil liability, officers at Oglala Lakota School District undergo even further training than legally required.
"We've gone above and beyond," said Fairbanks. "We've gotten 192 hours of instructional training and 48 hours of firearm training. That's 240 hours in addition to the 80 required by Sentinel."
They also do not hesitate when confronting the reality that someone they might shoot will be a student.
"Teachers talk to our kids about safety, and we've notified parents," said Trueblood. "But we're training to identify a threat and stop that threat from causing more damage to the school."
Teachers, too, have accepted the new normal. Destiny Leftwich, a 6th grade teacher, corralled her students back into the classroom after the first ALICE drill.
"Let's get back on task now," she said.
The district is mum on whether any specific incidents prompted adopting Sentinel, though court records from an unrelated lawsuit in Oglala Lakota County show that the district did send students home early following a security scare at the Rockyford School, a pre-K through 8th grade school north of Porcupine, in 2016.
"The way I'll answer that is to say that you never know from day to day. You always want to be proactive," said Fairbanks.
After the first ALICE training activity two Fridays ago, when 200 students in various classrooms filed out into the hallway while Trueblood roamed the hallway, giving orders with a bullhorn. Then, after a brief calm, the students prepared for a second training, an evacuation.
Around 11 a.m., precisely after students had returned to their chairs and taken a bathroom break, the sirens keened again, heavy doors pushed open, and children fled past a yellow school bus carrying the county's old name, "Shannon County." Like huddling under desks during bomb raids of the early days of the Cold War, the children's dress rehearsal for the unthinkable can be both surreal and orderly. After about 5 minutes — the average school shooting is finished within 7, Fairbanks said — the entire student body of Wolf Creek, including those kids who crossed over the thistle patches along the sidewalk have congregated by the safe confines of the white security SUV.
As students stand with their teacher along the entrance, Superintendent Fairbanks and Trueblood spoke to the children for a job-well-done.
"You really made us proud today, and you took this seriously," he said. "That's the kind of attitude we want to see."
And he led the school in a school cheer.