A proposal to let schools arm volunteer “sentinels” for defense passed the South Dakota Senate Wednesday and could be headed to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk.
The school sentinels bill gives every school district the option to arm teachers, staff or community volunteers, but doesn’t require any district to bring guns into schools.
That permissiveness was the key selling point of the proposal’s supporters.
“The sentinel bill will not put one single gun in any school in South Dakota,” said Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City and the former Rapid City police chief. “Only a local school board can make that decision.”
Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, agreed.
“This is very much about local control, and us trusting the people that are at the helm on those local school districts to make appropriate decisions based on the very unique circumstances that surrounds each one of our 151 school districts,” Rhoden said.
Officially numbered House Bill 1087, the sentinels bill enflamed passions around the state in the aftermath of last year’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., school. “If you have not heard about the sentinels bill, it’s probably time to come out of hibernation,” Tieszen quipped.
Many school districts, organizations and officials opposed the bill as it worked its way through the Legislature, saying it would do more harm than good and was flexibility schools didn’t want.
Several senators echoed those arguments in the Senate’s debate Wednesday.
“I think House Bill 1087 is premature,” said Sen. Mark Johnston, R-Sioux Falls. “I think it is our obligation, as we serve the people of South Dakota, to not jump to the conclusion that we need to have an armed sentinel in our schools, but to encourage our school districts, those locally elected officials, to do the analysis.”
Sen. Angie Buhl, D-Sioux Falls, worried that volunteer sentinels wouldn’t be as effective as police in a shooting situation.
“I worry about what happens if we go down the road of confusing lay personnel… with trained law enforcement officers,” Buhl said.
But the Senate voted 21-14 to approve the sentinels bill, agreeing that it gave schools an option for their own protection.
The House previously approved a different version of the bill 42-27.
Now the bill heads back to the House, which has to address Senate amendments. The House version required decision on school sentinels to be made in secret, while the Senate removed that secrecy provision. The Senate also passed an amendment letting voters refer a decision to adopt a sentinels program to a public vote.
The House could accept the Senate changes, kill the bill, or appoint a conference committee to negotiate a compromise version.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard has not said whether he will sign the sentinels bill, but has said he likes the concept.