Concerned parents hope to get the Spirit Lake School District to reconsider its plan to arm and provide firearms training to 10 non-classroom staff members—although new information indicates teachers are being trained as well—as a deterrent to school shootings. A review of the final draft plan will happen the Monday following Thanksgiving.
“It came as a real surprise,” said Spirit Lake parent Kate Mendenhall. “It was announced two days before school was starting and I hadn’t heard anything about it before. I’m friends with some of the school board members, they never mentioned that this was coming up on the agenda during the summer.
“I’d seen multiple board members throughout the summer, no mention of it. There was no invitation for community members and so I really felt like I had missed something.”
Mendenhall said she and others looked at past school board agendas and meeting minutes and found no mention of arming school staff. They later found out that a discussion on arming staff took place at a June 20 work session that included Rep. John Wills (R-Spirit Lake) and State Sen. Dave Rowley (R-Spirit Lake), but the minutes of that meeting only state they were discussing “current legislative policies.”
“I felt like they were being very secretive about it, that they were passing it through on the fast track,” Mendenhall said of the plan to arm school staff.
Spirit Lake, located in northwest Iowa’s Dickinson County, initially approved a plan in August during a special meeting to arm staff members; however, it had to be walked back after a group of parents noted that the board could only approve the plan in a regular meeting.
“We didn’t find out about it until after they approved it,” said Spirit Lake parent Jamie Hunter, one of the parents who sent the school board a letter notifying it that it had violated its own policy with the initial approval.
The plan has since moved forward and the next step for Spirit Lake is approving a new district safety plan, which Hunter and other parents hope does not include the section on arming staff members.
According to the safety plan, Superintendent Dr. David Smith would select the staff members who are to be armed, and the only people who would know their identities are him and local law enforcement. The staff members also have to pass a background check.
Staff members selected to carry guns will undergo multiple types of firearms training—paid for by the district—including marksmanship training “equivalent to or more extensive than that of law enforcement.” The district would also foot the bill for ammunition, time at the gun range, ongoing training, and the gun—unless the person chosen prefers to use their personal firearm and their request is approved by the superintendent.
An estimate of how much all of this would cost has not been made available to the public, according to Hunter.
The board will review the final draft of the safety plan at a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 28.
The district has said this plan was done with the full support of local law enforcement, but in a Nov. 16 letter to the board, Spirit Lake Police Chief Shane Brevik pushed back against this. He said he had a brief conversation over the summer with Smith and board member Angela Olsen and heard nothing else until the board initially approved the matter in August.
Brevik’s letter was four pages long and included a number of reasons why he doesn’t think armed staff is the best solution.
“There is no guarantee that armed staff members would respond more quickly than law enforcement, but speed isn’t the answer in itself,” he wrote. “It isn’t possible to list all the ways that individuals who can’t be adequately prepared for an active-shooter situation may make a situation worse.
“Any of those outcomes would result in more harm, more delay, and in interference with law enforcement’s response.”
Brevik’s letter also indicated that 15 staff members including some teachers have been undergoing weapons training.
“Teachers have not simply been observers,” he wrote.
Hunter, Mendenhall, and other community members have been speaking out against the plan during various school board meetings since September.
“A number of teachers have reached out to me thanking me for speaking up because they don’t feel like they can and maintain their positions in the school,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve been really frustrated that No. 1, the school board and superintendent did so without involving input from the community.
“We’re a really small town and small community and so even though we might not always agree, there’s a lot of room for dialogue and working together to find a compromise.”
Mendenhall’s second frustration is that the district’s culture makes staff feel uncomfortable sharing opposing views.
While the answer is evident as to why Hunter, Mendenhall, and others oppose placing armed individuals who aren’t law enforcement into school buildings, the women detailed why they are not fans of Spirit Lake’s policy.
“The risks of doing so far outweigh any benefit,” Hunter said. “There’s no evidence or research or data to show that arming school staff enhances school safety at all, but there’s a variety of risks when you introduce guns into what is supposed to be a safe place.
“Not just the risk of potentially more violence, but also just the emotional trauma, mental impacts of students knowing that there’s guns being carried around them.”
Mendenhall seconded Hunter’s thoughts, but also noted it is a misallocation of resources that could be used to address root issues. She said she spent 40-50 hours researching the topic of guns in schools and found evidence that there are better ways to prevent shootings.
“Schools should be investing in mental health resources, investing in anti-bullying, creating a culture of anti-bullying and anti-bullying techniques, and flagging on social media, “ Mendenhall said.
“They should be investing in regular check-ins with their students every day to see how they are doing emotionally. They should be investing in programs that form a really close relationship with our local enforcement and the school.”
Mendenhall said the connection between students and law enforcement could be beneficial in a situation where a student has family trauma at home. In those scenarios, the law enforcement agency and the school can communicate and make sure kids are doing OK, she said.
“That’s what all of the research points to as really supporting kids and reducing violence in the school, those types of programs that are focused on prevention,” she said. “The school has been putting a lot of energy into arming staff but very little energy into the myriad of programs available to school that data shows really do prevent violence.”
Hunter and Mendenhall want the Nov. 28 meeting to make a difference since the Spirit Lake police chief isn’t in support of the plan and because board members will hear directly from community members who are concerned about the idea of armed staff members being in school buildings
“I don’t know if they will listen to their community, but I hope they do the right thing,” Mendenhall said.
by Ty Rushing
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