Sentinel bill narrowly sent to Senate floor amid several questions

By Elizabeth “Sam” Grosz

Community News Service

The controversial “Sentinel” bill which would allow local school boards to put armed guards inside schools passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee last week.

About 60 people were on hand at the meeting, despite snow—and limited travel--in much of the state. Time constraints, however, limited the number of people testifying, as well as the length of their comments.

The vote to send HB1087 to the Senate floor as amended was 5-4. This surprised many observers who had expected the vote to swing the other way.

The amendment removed an addition made by the House that allowed school boards to discuss and make a decision in executive session to implement a sentinel program.

Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls, noted that such action would conflict with the existing open meeting statutes.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, agreed, noting that it must be a publicly made decision, but after that details could be handled in executive session as a personnel matter.

The lines were still drawn in the testimony between those who supported the bill as necessary for teacher and student safety, and those who feared the presence of guns would most certainly end in accidental shootings and unintended deaths of those who were meant to be protected.

Tieszen recounted instances from the 1990s when he was a Rapid City police commander in which an armed student threatened fellow students. Of 13 threats in Rapid City following the Columbine school shooting in 1999, Tieszen said, two were credible and could have caused harm if not stopped.

“So, if we think we are immune in South Dakota,” Tieszen said, “think again.”

Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, refuted the assumption that this bill was in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting recently. He said he had presented his concept to the Legislative Research Council in December and the shootings took place two weeks later.

That, he said, “confirmed the rightness of this bill.” Since then, he said, there have been four more incidents seen nationally.

 Compelling opposition came from New Underwood School Superintendent Jeff Marlette, who is a retired Brigadier General who saw combat.

“Have we now reached a place that our state has gotten so bad, so unsafe,” Marlette asked, where teachers need to carry guns? He outlined the dangers of peripheral damage that even trained law enforcement can inflict when trying to bring down a gunman.

Rob Monson, State Association of School Administrators, presented an amendment that would have changed the bill’s intent to an interim study topic.

Tieszen later called the so-called “hog house” of the bill an “ambush,” noting he had seen the amendment for “exactly 32 minutes” during the meeting. He called the attempt “intensely disrespectful.”

That amendment was defeated.

Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, said the sentinel bill was an important issue, in fact, “this is THE issue of the 2013 session.” He added, “what we have in place is working,” noting that boards could already hire guards.

Chairman Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, said the bill’s intent has been blown out of proportion. He said it would allow the state’s 152 school districts to decide whether to participate in a sentinel program.

Rhoden called the program “one small step in the right direction.”

The bill now travels to the Senate floor for final legislative consideration.

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