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Spirit Lake School Board approves final plan to arm select staff

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Spirit Lake School Board member Greta Gruys highlighted several preventative measures the district has put in place to prevent gun violence, saying the board's decision to arm select staff members is a last option if all else fails. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
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By Seth Boyes - News Editor

The Spirit Lake School Board unanimously voted Monday night to approve the final draft of its emergency response plan. The plan has drawn both support and criticism since August, when the board initially voted 4-0 to take steps toward training and arming up to 10 non-teaching staff members to respond in the event of an active shooter situation.

District officials sought public input on the proposed plan over a period of about a week in mid-November. Angela Olsen, the district's director of special projects and emergency coordinator under the safety plan, said the school received 187 responses in support of the overall plan and 102 opposed to it. She noted dozens of oppositional responses were received through Action Network — a nonprofit which provides tools to help activist groups further their efforts, according to the organization's website — and 59 of them were identical form letters. Approximately 25 individuals chose to speak directly to the board Monday night, and most of them were in support of arming select staff.

THE PLAN

The school's newly approved policy specifies the district would purchase firearms, ammunition, holsters, safes and other equipment like flashlights and medical kits for the authorized individuals. Those individuals' identities are not expected to be made public, but school officials said Monday no weapons will be carried by grade-level teachers, teaching associates, bus drivers or those teaching special subjects such as music. Staff members may voluntarily withdraw from the program if they choose, and the district can revoke a staff member's authorization to carry weapons if need be.

Staff who are authorized to carry weapons could choose to carry their personal firearm with the superintendent's approval. The school would also provide gun range memberships for practice and training. The selected staff members would be authorized to carry a firearm on school grounds, buses, inside district buildings and at home activities and events. The individuals would not be allowed to carry weapons at school events outside the district, "unless permissible by that school district."

The emergency plan covers 14 specific emergency responses, such as fires and tornadoes, but only four would merit a response by armed staff members — unauthorized weapons, an intruder, an active intruder or a hostage situation. The staff would turn the situation over to law enforcement as officers arrive — be it the school resource officer or other personnel.

The selected staff will also be required to pass a background check and obtain necessary permits, undergo an in-person mental health screening, submit to a drug screening and pass all aspects of professional training. Approximately 15 individuals had begun training as of mid-October. The training is being provided by Petersen Firearms Instruction, which is owned and operated by Okoboji Police Chief Jason Petersen and his brother Chief Dickinson County Sheriff's Deputy Tony Petersen. Jason Petersen said Monday he is a certified trainer in various weapons and helps train law enforcement officers to respond during active shooter situations.

"Law enforcement's going to try their best to get to a situation as fast as they possible can," he told the school board Monday, noting a response could take several minutes. "The most efficient way to deal with the situation is to have somebody present, willing and capable. And you have that."

THE CRITICISM

Spirit Lake Police Chief Shane Brevik articulated a number of concerns regarding the proposed plan in a Nov. 16 email to school officials — about 18 weeks after the board's initial vote. Spirit Lake Superintendent David Smith said Monday he respects Brevik, but he felt the police chief's decision to release the statement to news outlets shortly after it was sent to the district was inappropriate, and Smith called it a "sabotage job."

"This deserved a sit-down with me," Smith said, after noting Brevik was present for portions of the staff's training and claimed the chief didn't express concern at that time.

Keith Brockmeyer, a former Spirit Lake School Board member and current Spirit Lake city councilman, said the topic of arming school staff came up during his eight years on the board, and he was supportive of the steps being taken by the current board. Brockmeyer said he has had "some pretty frank discussions in the last couple weeks," with Brevik and others.

"I came to the same conclusion, that he is not speaking from his heart," Brockmeyer told the school board Monday, adding he was not speaking for the city. "I just don't feel like he feels free to speak, and that's unfortunate."

Spirit Lake Schools had released a statement the night of Aug. 22, saying the proposed plan at that time was fully supported by both Brevik and Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun. Smith said Spirit Lake City Administrator Gregg Owens informed the school Brevik had questions about his department's role in the proposed plan, and Smith said school officials met with the police chief the day after the board's resolution.

Brevik then released a statement, saying he and Smith had positive discussions about the plan, that the concept had merit and that Brevik expected to work with the district as more specific plans were formulated. In his Nov. 16 statement to the board, Brevik specified that he had not fully endorsed the plan, and he noted a portion of the plan incorrectly stated the 40 hours of marksmanship and shooting training the school staff were to receive was equal to that required of new officers at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. Olsen said the district was provided inaccurate information as training began.

"We erroneously reported law enforcement has 40 hours of firearms training — just a miscommunication," Olsen said Monday. "It is 72 hours, and that includes all of the guns and all of the weapons that law enforcement are trained on."

Olsen went on to say the school's emergency plan has been updated to correct the mistake, and it now specifically notes school staff are only being trained on handguns.

Brevik's email to the school board said arming staff "is an unworkable solution, which also has the real potential to provide a false sense of security for students, parents and school personnel and interfere with law enforcement efforts in the event of an emergency." He said at that time he could not support the district's plan while the draft lacked specifics on the annual required training armed staff would undergo.

Brad Travis, an art teacher at Spirit Lake High School, said he observed the staff members as they trained and indicated he feels they are well prepared.

"I can attest that we've more than adequately trained on the basics of firearms procedures, skills and group movements," Travis said.

Joy Pritchard, a parent of students in Spirit Lake and the high school's yearbook advisor, encouraged the community to do their part to prevent local gun violence, and she said she too supported the district's safety plan. She said a number of concepts and activities pioneered by the district over the years have become standard in other school districts.

THE OTHER DISTRICTS

As of last week, neither the Okoboji School District nor the Harris-Lake Park School District had plans to implement policies similar to those being discussed at Spirit Lake.

"We are maintaining our current policy and safety plans, and I am not recommending staff be armed with guns," Okoboji School Superintendent Todd Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson noted the Okoboji School District will continue ALICE training — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate — with staff, and the district is going through a safety assessment through the state's School Safety Improvement Program to identify areas which can be improved such as security cameras, lighting, fencing and alert systems.

"In addition, the district will work with (Police) Chief Shilo Brevik and the Milford Police Department to discuss the possibility of partnering with Milford PD to share a trained security resource officer," Abrahamson said. "Okoboji School District will continue to work with local agencies on the safety and security of our facilities and, most importantly, the safety and security of our students and staff."

Spirit Lake Schools itself has partnered with the Spirit Lake Police Department to provide a single resource officer at the school for a number of years, but Superintendent Smith estimated hiring a full-time officer for each district building would cost the school $240,000 each year — a total he feels is not sustainable.

Harris-Lake Park School Superintendent Les Douma said H-LP is currently "not equipped or prepared to make any decision to support firearms in our schools" and will focus on preventative measures and safety support measures for students and staff. Douma confirmed Harris-Lake Park Schools received a false bomb threat on Nov. 7, and he said the school went into lockdown for approximately an hour that day. Douma said the threat was received by phone and was not made by an H-LP student. He said the Lake Park community has received several similar calls recently.

"Law enforcement was contacted and arrived immediately," Douma said. "They cooperated and assisted us greatly. Almost immediately, they determined that it was very similar to other calls received previously in the community."

Douma went on to say the school administration met the following day to review and revise district procedures. The district's plan emphasizes prevention through social and emotional curriculum, mental health services and risk assessments, as well as preparation and protection through emergency plans, drills and regular meetings with emergency personnel.

THE LAST OPTION

Similar preventative measures have been bolstered at Spirit Lake Schools.

Spirit Lake School Board Member Greta Gruys noted Monday that the district has made several recent decisions aimed at preventing gun violence. Gruys highlighted a new partnership with Champion State of Mind to provide mental health and substance abuse services. Gruys also pointed to high school curriculum designed to address emotional and mental health, as well as the hiring of an additional high school guidance counselor and programs to identify at-risk students and address possible threats.

Gruys said the arming of staff is intended to be the district's last option in its overall safety plan, should all other efforts fail — Gruys later said it would be naive to think a school shooting could not happen locally, and she said it would be "absolutely foolish not to have a plan in place."

"Gun violence and mass shootings in this country have become sickeningly repetitive," Gruys told Monday's audience. "I see both sides of this controversial issue, and I hope you know that I hate that we are even here discussing it. It is not that I want guns in our schools, and I found it profoundly sad that this is where we are as a country."

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