South Dakota is halfway to allowing schools to arm volunteer defenders after the state House approved a controversial bill Tuesday.
The “school sentinels” bill, House Bill 1087, will let school districts choose to arm employees or other volunteers against attacks. Under compromises hashed out earlier in a legislative committee, local law enforcement has to sign off on the plan, and any sentinels have to undergo more than 40 hours of training.
After an hour of fierce debate, the South Dakota House passed HB 1087 42-27. Eleven Republicans joined almost all Democrats in voting against the measure, while most Republicans and one Democrat voted yes.
The big selling point for most supporters was the local control in the bill.
“For the schools that do not want, ever, to have somebody armed… this gives them the power to decide to never have an armed presence, or to have an armed presence,” said Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, the bill’s primary sponsor. “It is up to them.”
Craig called the bill a “vote of confidence in school boards.”
Other speakers emphasized the perceived security benefits of this bill. Even if very few schools arm teachers under this measure, supporters said, the ambiguity that perhaps a school might have an armed volunteer would deter shooters.
“The bad guys will have no knowledge of any school that has taken advantage of being able to have a sentinel,” said Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka. “That alone will stop many of the people who want to create carnage from doing so.”
That ambiguity would exist in part because of a provision inserted in the bill in committee that requires discussions of the school sentinel program by school boards take place in private. An attempt Tuesday by Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, to broaden that secrecy provision was overwhelmingly defeated Tuesday.
Critics of the bill disagreed vehemently. A series of Democrats said the bill was flawed and posed more dangers than it solved.
“The primary issue here is not local control, it’s guns in schools in the hands of lightly trained, non-law enforcement officials,” said Rep. Ray Ring, D-Vermillion.
Rep. Scott Parsley, D-Madison, said the bill would send the wrong message to children.
“This is a step in the wrong direction to show our kids that the way we’re going to solve all our problems is to arm ourselves,” he said.
Critics cited the opposition to the bill from the state’s associations of teachers, school boards and school administrators. Supporters said minorities of those groups, principally smaller school districts around the state, wanted the ability to arm sentinels.
Only one out of a string of proposed amendments to HB 1087 passed. Rep. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, changed language giving local sheriffs veto power over the adoption of sentinels to the more general local “law enforcement official.” That means in larger cities, police chiefs will make the decision, instead of the sheriff, who will retain control in rural areas and many smaller cities.
Democrats proposed several changes, such as adding a $250,000 appropriation or an emergency clause to the bill, that would have had the effect of requiring more votes to pass the bill. All were defeated on largely party-line votes.
Now the school sentinels bill moves to the state Senate, where its future is unknown. Some senators, such as Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls, have expressed doubts about the bill, but others are public supporters.
It has yet to be assigned to a Senate committee or scheduled for its first hearing.
If it passes its committee and the full Senate, the bill will head to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk for a signature or veto. Daugaard has not stated his preference on the bill, but has said he will speak with school officials and law enforcement when making up his mind.
If Daugaard were to veto the bill, the House would face an uphill vote to override it. Only 42 lawmakers supported the bill Tuesday, fewer than the 47 votes needed to pass a bill over a veto.
(This post has been updated with an expanded version of the story.)