Mitchell Christian School may arm employees, causes controversy

Associated Press

MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) — Mitchell Christian School is considering taking advantage of a new South Dakota law that allows schools to arm teachers, other staff or volunteers with guns under the belief that it would improve school security.

Mitchell Christian Superintendent Joseph Fox said he and some members of the school board support the idea of having guns in the school to protect students from intruders.

“As we talked about it from a board prospective, our board was very much in favor of it,” Fox said. “If it’s a known factor that there’s someone there that will protect, that may inhibit someone from trying to do something.”

The Mitchell Daily Republic reported that it contacted 40 schools, and Mitchell Christian was the only one considering placing so-called armed sentinels inside its school.

The Legislature passed a law this year that allows schools to arm school staff or volunteers. Local law enforcement officers would have to approve a school’s plan, and armed faculty and volunteers would have to complete 80 hours of training in a state program devised by the same commission responsible for training law enforcement officers.

Scott Rechtenbaugh, of the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said there has been no interest yet in the course.

Associations representing school boards, school administrators and teachers opposed the meawsure during the legislative session, arguing that armed teachers or volunteers could increase the danger of accidental shootings or create problems if students find a sentinel’s gun.

Some superintendents vehemently oppose the idea.

“It’s one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard and one of the most harebrained pieces of legislation I’ve ever seen,” Burke Superintendent Erik Person said. “I’m not trying to make light of the school safety issue, but the idea that we’re going to pick someone on our staff and adequately train them to carry a weapon, it’s a ridiculous notion.”

Mitchell Christian is a private religious institution that creates its own bylaws, but it is also subject to state gun laws. Local law enforcement officials would have to approve any plan approved by the school to use armed staff or volunteers.

Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg and Davison County Sheriff Steve Brink said they would be open to discussing the topic.

“There’s a lot of ifs,” Brink said. “A guy carrying a gun in a school, it could be good, it could be bad. If a school is interested, we’ll sit down with the board and decide yea or nay, but I can see positives and negatives.”

Fox, who said he grew up in a hunting family and knows how to handle guns, said he and other staff members would be Mitchell Christian’s armed sentinels.

Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell public school district, said he has no interest in putting armed personnel in the district, which has a school resource officer who is a regular law enforcement officer. But Graves said the new law is well constructed because it leaves decisions up to each school, and some rural schools might want armed staff or volunteers

Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said the lack of sentinels so far may be due to safety and liability issues.

“What happens if a weapon goes off?” Pogany said. “What happens if someone is hurt? What happens if there is a shooting? Where does the liability fall with the school?”