Guns in schools: Area school officials divided on bill to allow them

2015-02-09 | The Jamestown Sun

Feb. 09--School leaders in the region are divided on the need to allow people with concealed carry permits and special training to carry firearms on school grounds.

House Bill 1195 would give local school districts the authority to allow people 21 years or older, with the proper permit, to carry weapons on school grounds with the approval of the local school administration. The bill also mandates the school require people carrying firearms on school grounds receive additional training and undergo a psychological evaluation and skills testing.

The bill passed the North Dakota House of Representatives by a 53-38 margin and is pending in the Senate. It is sponsored by Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City.

"I agree guns and kids don't mix," said Mark Lindahl, superintendent of Barnes County North Public School. "But this allows local school districts to make the decision."

Lindahl said Barnes County North is in a unique situation which could make an armed presence at the school important. The school is located in the country near Leal and is about 30 miles from the nearest community where law enforcement officers are headquartered.

"Our location here makes it difficult," he said. "We have had instances when we've called for law enforcement officers and it's taken 25 minutes. We have to have some protection whether it is a gun, stun gun, something."

Lindahl's opinions are shared by Daren Christianson, superintendent at Pingree-Buchanan Public School.

"The bill allows local control," he said. "Each district should have the right to make the decision based on their own circumstance."

Other superintendents in the region don't see the need for arming teachers or staff at schools.

"This is a tough decision every school will have to make," said Jerry Waagen, superintendent at Montpelier Public School District. "We just installed new secure doors. I'd rather be preventative and keep someone outside."

Robert Lech, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, said the potential for negative outcomes, such as accidental shootings or injury to students, outweighs the possible benefit of having an armed person in the school.

Jamestown Public Schools has a school resource officer who is a member of the Jamestown Police Department and spends time at the schools in the district.

"These decisions require much more than the physical training and rudimentary situational training that would allow them to carry concealed weapons in school," Lech said. "Despite the best of intentions, that is putting a lot of responsibility on people that will not have the extensive training of a peace officer."

Waagen anticipated delays in implementing the program if it is approved.

"I understand it's put out there because of the rural schools," he said. "But with the training required it's going to take a long while to implement properly."

Lech also said he recognized the bill was meant for rural schools where response times for law enforcement officers are longer.

"It is certainly a different argument," he said. "It is still my contention, however, that the potential negatives far outweigh the potential benefits."

Also before the North Dakota Legislature is House Bill 1388, which would provide $1 million in funding for 15 school districts to hire school resource officers. A school resource officer is a trained police officer who provides security at the school and also interacts with the students as part of the educational process.

"The bill providing funding for the school resource officer is a better bill," Lindahl said. "But funding is hard to get in this Legislature."

Lindahl also said the bill only provides partial funding requiring the school district to cover some of the cost.

"Will it come down to a resource officer or a teacher when funding gets tight?" he said.

Christianson said school funding at Pingree-Buchanan is already tight.

"I don't see a school resource officer as a realistic option for us," he said.

Both Christianson and Lindahl anticipate talking with their school boards if the bill passes.

"I'd like to have those discussions with the school board and parents as to what they want," Lindahl said. "It's different in places that have school resource officers or are in close proximity to law enforcement. We have to be self-sufficient."

Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at knorman@jamestownsun.com