Homeland Security and Public Safety

States Tackle School Safety After Sandy Hook Shootings

South Dakota governor signs bill that aims to make schools safer by introducing “school sentinels” who would carry guns.

In recent weeks, the South Dakota legislature has been rattled over a bill that aims to make schools safer by introducing “school sentinels” — teachers, administrators, security guards or community volunteers — who would carry guns to protect their schools.

“If you have not heard about the sentinels bill, it’s probably time to come out of hibernation,” state Senator Craig Tieszen joked last week, according to the Argus Leader.

The bill, which school districts could adopt voluntarily, passed both chambers of the legislature, despite protest from the state’s school board association and most Democrats, and was signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard on March 8.

South Dakota is among several states considering new school safety laws in the wake of the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 young students and six adults dead.

A month after the tragedy, President Obama called for a mix of gun-control measures and increased security at schools. His plan would ban military-style assault rifles and strengthen background checks, but also would include more money for guidance counselors and school resource officers, who are usually armed and trained to work at schools. He also supported requiring schools to adopt emergency plans and beefing up mental health services to earlier identify students in need of help.

Different Approaches

States have pursued a variety of proposals. The day before Obama released his plan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a new law, which toughens gun laws in schools and requires them to submit school safety plans to a new School Safety Improvement Team. The act also bans assault weapons, puts greater restrictions on ammunition, and requires counselors and therapists to report potentially dangerous patients to mental health officials. In February, Arkansas passed legislation requiring the state to determine whether schools are equipped to respond to acts of violence.

Kathy Christie, who heads legislative research at the Education Commission on the States, says a new trend in school security strategy stresses greater emphasis on training teachers to spot mental health problems in students and refer them for help. “They’re looking at what is the first line of defense,” she says.

But the question of beefing up security in schools — particularly allowing teachers and other school staff to be armed — has proved more divisive. Many education leaders criticized the National Rifle Association after it recommended putting an armed guard in every school. After Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell also suggested that the state consider arming teachers, leaders of the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, jointly condemned the idea.

“Guns have no place in our schools,” Dennis van Roekel of the NEA and Randi Weingarten of the AFT said in a joint statement.

Paying for Security

In just under a third of the nation’s schools, guns do have a place, at least some of the time. According to Department of Education statistics from the 2009-2010 school year, about 28 percent of schools had some armed security staff, with more than 50 percent of middle schools and 60 percent of high schools reporting the presence of armed staff.

Those numbers could increase under the president’s proposal, but it could be expensive. Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, estimates that each resource officer costs $50,000 to $80,000, depending on location.