SLSD gun policy stands after being called back to discussion table
The Spirit Lake School Board voted 5-0 Monday night to proceed with plans to train and potentially arm up to 10 non-teaching staff members who could respond in the event of an active shooter. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
By Seth Boyes - News Editor
The issue of potentially arming non-teaching staff at Spirit Lake Schools who could respond in the event of an active shooter was brought back to the table Monday night, but the proposed policy is still moving forward.
The board had voted 4-0 during an Aug. 22 special meeting to allow up to 10 staff members — but specifically not classroom teachers — to potentially carry or otherwise have access to firearms on school grounds after receiving training and gaining special permission from the district. The board also voted to update its policies to reflect the decision, but a group of concerned families noted in a Sept. 6 letter to the district that the board's own policy prohibits policy changes outside a regular board meeting.
The group also claimed the public — and specifically district families — were not adequately informed the school board was debating whether to arm staff members. Group members said none of the board's previous minutes indicated such discussions were taking place.
"This did not allow for a fair, informed debate and discussion of a complicated issue, and raises questions of due diligence from the parents who entrust their children’s development and education in the Spirit Lake Community School District," the group's letter said.
The group asked the board to take up the policy changes again at its regular meeting this month, which the board did — approving the weapons policy unanimously.
Spirit Lake School Board President Teresa Beck said during Monday's meeting that she first joined the board in 2011 — about one year before the infamous shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Beck said, in many ways, she has been considering issues of school safety for the past decade.
Beck said, while the district employs a school resource officer, it cannot afford the cost of placing an officer in every building for the entirety of each school day. She said arming staff in each building will hopefully act as a deterrent the district will never have to actually use.
"It's not an ideal solution, but I don't have a better one to stop the killing," Beck said Monday.
She and others noted the proposed policy can be monitored and adapted as time goes on. Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun noted during last month's special meeting that there are more school buildings in Dickinson County than there are officers on duty at any given time. School board member Kerri McKim indicated Monday that, when modern attackers are capable of killing in seconds, response times are now a major concern.
"I think, at the point we have a shooter in the building, we're not going to have zero (deaths)," McKim said. "While that's what we all hope for, that's not what we're going to have."
Beck also noted potentially allowing firearms on school grounds is only part of the district's multi-pronged approach. She said school officials plan to have the buildings digitally mapped to help law enforcement formulate potential responses, and the district also intends to partner with Champion State of Mind in Spirit Lake to provide mental health services to students at no cost to the district — the district will simply provide a space for mental health personnel to provide services. School board member Greta Gruys noted doing so will potentially eliminate barriers to care for those who can't easily travel to appointments.
Kate Mendenhall and Jamie Hunter, two of the 24 signatories who called for the school board to revisit the weapons policy, chose to address the board Monday. Both identified themselves as parents of children attending Spirit Lake Elementary, and offered additional information for the board to consider.
School officials had previously cited statistics from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security which showed 251 school shootings occurred in 2021 — the center's database defined a school shooting as "when a gun is brandished, is fired or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time or day of the week." The data claimed 175 such incidents had been recorded in 2022 as of the board's Aug. 22 vote, but Mendenhall told the board Monday the details within those statistics are important.
Citing the same data, Mendenhall noted more than half the recorded incidents took place outside a school building and argued mass shootings make up less than 1 percent of recorded school gun violence. She said it is more common for the recorded incidents to involve specific individuals, arguments which escalate, domestic violence, parking lot altercations or robberies in which a school becomes what Mendenhall called an unfortunate backdrop. She also noted 10.4 percent of the recorded incidents involve the accidental discharge of a weapon — she specifically cited a 2018 case in which a teacher and reserve police officer in Monterey County, California, accidentally fired a weapon during a safety demonstration, injuring three students whom news reports said were struck by bullet fragments and debris falling from the ceiling.
Similarly, Hunter said, in her experience as a criminal defense attorney, guns tend to escalate violence, sometimes to lethal levels.
Hunter went on to question the specifics of the district's weapons policy, asking how Iowa's status as a Stand Your Ground state might impact the use of weapons on school grounds. In addition, she questioned how law enforcement responding to a potential attack will differentiate an attacker from an approved staff member with a gun. She asked if the board did choose to move forward with the policy, that it consider decreasing the number of individuals allowed to carry weapons and require guns be kept under lock and key rather than carried by staff.
Mendenhall noted Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced in June $100 million would be available for school safety. That total includes $7.5 million to cover vulnerability assessments for all of Iowa's K-12 buildings, according to information from the governor's office. Another $1.5 million is set aside for digital applications and software for reporting and intelligence efforts — Mendenhall encouraged the Spirit Lake School Board to look into a program the Storm Lake School District uses to identify high risk individuals and events.
Both she and Hunter also encouraged the board to wait on approving the proposed weapons policy until after completing a state-funded vulnerability study.
Ultimately, the board voted to move ahead as planned.
"I'm disappointed in the board today," Mendenhall said ahead of Monday night's vote. "I'm very disappointed in this district, not only for the vote you are about to make but that you came here with your ears closed and that you did not reach out to your wonderful community of dedicated parents to ask for input in this discussion that is going to change the culture of our schools. And while I commend you for putting safety first, you are making the wrong decision tonight."
After re-approving its Aug. 22 decision, the board also voted to update its policy language to allow such changes to be made during any board meeting — be it regularly scheduled or special. Beck noted the vote did not alter the window required for notifying the public of the school board's agenda.