- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

COLTON, S.D. (AP) - The first South Dakota school district to allow approved employees to carry guns appears to be moving ahead with the program, though officials have declined to provide details, citing security reasons, and said they are “done talking about it.”

One applicant from the Tri-Valley School District was approved for this summer’s required training, but the state and the district won’t identify him or her. Superintendent Mike Lodmel declined to confirm to The Associated Press whether the school sentinel program is even active, saying that the information could give a would-be attacker an advantage.

“We’re pretty much done talking about it,” Lodmel said. “We really feel we’ve answered every question we could possibly answer.”

Tri-Valley adopted the program because of concern it could take too long for authorities to reach the rural school facility in a crisis, said Lodmel, whose district of about 900 students is about 25 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, where the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office is located. Sheriff Mike Milstead said a deputy is assigned full-time to the district, and the office has contracts to spend time policing in area communities.

Both the school district and the attorney general’s office, which conducted the applicant’s 80-hour training that ended in August, declined to release most details requested by AP, citing exemptions in South Dakota’s public records law.

Milstead, who approved the single application from Tri-Valley for the training, said he agreed with the secrecy because information about a sentinel’s identity could make it easier for an assailant to carry out an effective attack.

“If my kid was in that school, I would not want that information to be publicized,” Milstead said.

Milstead said the district has met the school sentinel guidelines set by statute, but isn’t certain whether officials have fulfilled any added requirements that may have been imposed by the school board.

South Dakota lawmakers passed a school sentinel law in March 2013, a few months after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Supporters argued that schools, particularly in rural areas, needed the option of arming teachers, administrators or volunteers. Tri-Valley’s decision to get into the program came months after a teenage student at Harrisburg High School, about 35 miles away, was charged with attempted murder in the shooting and wounding of the principal.

The student was tackled after the shooting by Assistant Principal Ryan Rollinger, who, along with the school’s activities director, held him down until deputies arrived.

At least seven states have passed laws authorizing schools or school boards to allow teachers and staff to carry firearms, though some of the laws are specific to private schools or specific counties, according to Joellen Kralik, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At Tri-Valley, few people testified about the plan when it was before the school board, and two people who previously spoke critically of it declined to discuss it with the AP. A teachers’ union staff representative for the service unit that includes Tri-Valley said he hadn’t heard any concerns from members.

Lodmel estimated that at least 50 parents or community members have contacted him in “strong support” of the program.

Ryan Fods, the mayor of Colton who has three children in the district, supports the armed sentinel program and the district’s silence on it.

“It’s just another thing the school board and administration are doing to help protect the students in the district and the staff in the district,” Fods, a 1995 Tri-Valley graduate, said this week.

The law requires anyone acting as a school sentinel to successfully complete training designed by the same commission that sets training standards for law enforcement officers. It includes firearms proficiency, first aid, use of force and weapons retention and storage.

State regulations say a trainee must have a valid concealed weapons permit, have fingerprints taken by a law enforcement officer, get examined by a licensed physician and have a high school degree, among other requirements. Tri-Valley’s policy calls for a psychological evaluation for sentinels.

Tri-Valley also has procedures in place for school sentinels to follow, but Lodmel declined to discuss them.


Follow James Nord on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Jvnord

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