BROOKINGS – The Brookings Police Department, guns and safety were some of the biggest topics of the night at the Brookings School Board meeting on Monday.
It’s been a while since the March 1 shelter-in-place order was implemented at Brookings High School in order to investigate a rumor that was later found not to be credible, but Brookings Police Department Chief Dave Erickson and School Resource Officers Josh Schneider and Eric Warkenthien were at the school board meeting to review their commitment to the safety and security of the community’s school children.
The police department – along with the Brookings County Sheriff’s Office, the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the Brookings Fire Department, Brookings Health System and EMS – trains more than three times a year on responding to an active shooter situation, with the location changing to provide everyone with a variety of layouts and a fresh perspective.
Even though the site might change, the lessons learned are applicable to any location. Of course, the trick is to stay up to date on the latest tactics, and so far, Erickson is pleased with how his department and the school have risen to the occasion through the years of preparation and training.
The school district has two school resource officers who patrol the district’s six school buildings, each patrolling the three schools for which they are responsible.
Schneider has his office set up at Brookings High School. In addition to BHS, he covers Medary Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary.
Warkenthien’s office is at Mickelson Middle School, and he also patrols Camelot Intermediate and Dakota Prairie.
As for how the officers split their time among their three respective schools, that depends largely on what they’re busy with at the other schools.
“We try to get to all three schools as often as we can whether you just walk around or talk with staff, getting updates and seeing what’s happening at the schools. I guess we don’t have a typical day. Just depends on what happens,” Schneider said.
In addition to their security role at the schools, they value the chance to interact with students.
“We’re engaging with the youth, building that bridge between law enforcement and kids,” Schneider said. “We’re trying to get more positive influence and then rather just seeing us come to their houses when something happens, it’s better for them to see us more in that positive light.”
And their duties also extend to that of counseling and teaching.
“We kind of do it all,” Schneider said. “Whatever the school asks us to do, we do it for the most part.”
Warkenthien, who’s in his first year as a school resource officer, said he makes a point of being out and about, making sure he has a visible presence at the schools he looks after.
He accomplishes this through greeting kids when they’re coming into school at the start of the day or saying goodbye at the end of the day or simply walking the hallways.
“Just making myself visible so they’re not just seeing me in a bad or good situation, but knowing that I’m prepared for anything that could happen. … This is my first year doing it, so I’m learning everything, trying to build that trust and relationships with the kids,” he said. “So far, it’s working out very well. I like what I do, and I’m glad I took this position.”
And as Erickson reminded the board members, when something does come up and more than the two designated school resource officers are needed, other members of the police department respond and assist as appropriate to the situation.
When the high school went into shelter-in-place March 1 to look into a possible cause for concern, Erickson, Assistant Police Chief Derrick Powers and four detectives responded alongside Schnieder and Warkenthien.
“We dropped everything to respond,” Erickson said. “That’s indicative of the dedication we have as a department.”
On the heels of that presentation, Brookings School District Superintendent Klint Willert said during his administrative report that in light of the ongoing national conversation on different ways to ensure a safe and secure learning environment, one method he will not endorse is the arming of school staff, law enforcement officers excepted.
In 2013, the state Legislature passed what’s called the South Dakota Sentinel Program, which allows school districts in the state to decide for themselves whether or not they want to allow willing staff members to undergo intensive training and carry weapons at school.
According to the state attorney general’s website, the school sentinel program requires no less than 80 hours of training in firearms proficiency, use of force, the different legal aspects, weapons retention, identifying protocol for identifying sentinels and first aid with standards on who can become sentinels also outlined.
Willert said that even if talk at the federal level about assisting states with passing similar measures, he can’t support it here.
“We’ve discussed this at length administratively and again, I really struggle to believe that we are going to relegate the profession of teaching to carrying weapons in our schools. I cannot support that,” he said.
As board member Steve Bayer recalled, “We took specific board action when that came out of Pierre a couple years back that that would not be policy here, so it would require specific board action to undo that” if a future board ever changed its mind.
Some high schoolers are of a similar mind and evidently plan to join a national school walk-out scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14. On the national level, the student walk-outs will be in protest of gun violence and will take place one month after the shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida.
According to the board report, the Brookings iteration came from “senior student leaders” who contacted high school administrators to discuss a “student safety demonstration.”
“We’re supporting the process by providing a safe place and space for students to provide their expression. Again, it’s consistent with the freedom of speech rights that students are afforded, and I applaud our high school administration for working very closely with students and staff and working through this process,” Willert said.
Led by three students, according to BHS Principal Paul von Fischer, the students will have the chance to lead a student assembly at that time in Jostad Gym, with classes continuing as normal throughout this time. Students who participate in the assembly would not face any penalties.
However, there are still plans for a walk-out from the school building, and participating in that would incur an absence mark, which would require excusing from a parent or guardian. If a student has too many unexcused absences, that can result in detention time.
Von Fischer is unsure of how long the walk-out portion of the demonstrations could last.
“I think the potential is pretty great for there to be gun control discussions, and I urged our student groups to find a common ground, to support school safety and not to get into an argument about things that might be more contentious and probably dilute the power of their message to talk about school safety,” he said.
Student organizer Oscar Kavanagh said in an email to the Register that the students who walk out plan to march to City Hall on Wednesday morning.
“The movement: it’s all of us, never forget that. Stoneman-Douglas rocked us all to our core. We must demand action from our government, and whoever stands in the way of the near-unanimous outcry from our nation’s youth will be bombarded with protest all the same,” Kavanagh wrote on the protest group’s Facebook page.
Before Monday’s school board meeting even started, the school board spent two hours and 50 minutes in executive session before voting to expel an unnamed student through Aug. 1, 2018. The vote was approved 4-1 with Van Fishback dissenting.
Willert declined after the meeting to provide the name of the student, the school the student attended or the reason why the student was in this situation.
Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]