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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 24 2013

Guns in school: Some North Dakota lawmakers want to let school boards decide issue in secret

BISMARCK – Advocates for sunshine in government want to shoot down an effort by lawmakers to allow school boards to decide behind closed doors the issue of whether guns should be allowed in their district’s schools.

House Bill 1215 would change the Century Code to allow school boards to go into executive session to designate who can carry concealed weapons.

Local school board leaders, the state teachers group, the state school board association and the state’s newspapers all oppose the measure.

The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City.

“I introduced it to keep perpetrators from knowing the type of defense a school has,” Kiefert said. “It gives them a way to develop a plan if they do know. If a perpetrator thinks someone might be armed, they won’t show up.”

He said he worked with the National Rifle Association while drafting the bill. The nationwide organization has proposed putting an armed security guard in every school in the country.

“For schools that can’t afford a security guard, this is a more efficient way for a school to provide their own,” Kiefert said.

The bill requires law enforcement agencies to be informed who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon in schools.

Jack McDonald, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said the argument for secrecy is flawed.

The state doesn’t need more secret meetings, particularly on something as important as determining who can carry deadly weapons in schools, he said.

McDonald said any school board could easily debate the issue publicly, and then designate their superintendent to determine who, if anyone, can carry a weapon in schools.

“It is always inevitable that any time you give a public body the opportunity to hold a secret meeting, it will take advantage of that to discuss a lot of other issues as well as the purpose for the secret meeting,” he said.

McDonald testified against HB 1215, which recently passed the House Judiciary Committee with eight yes votes, five nays and one abstention.

North Dakota Education Association President Dakota Draper also testified against the bill.

“We felt that it is not good precedent to allow a decision to be made in executive session for a school board,” Draper said.

He said the logic used to support the argument is “baffling,” in that it’s unlikely school shooters will research whether a school has someone in it with a concealed weapon.

“I think people that do these tragic, horrible things, like we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, I don’t think they think things through that far,” Draper said.

Making schools safer should “be done at an open hearing” with input from all groups, Draper said.

Grand Forks School District Superintendent Larry Nybladh said executive sessions would be unnecessary and contrary to the traditions of North Dakota in terms of local control and governance.

“I don’t feel it would be necessary for a school board to have that level of secrecy or privacy to a discussion,” he said. “It would be of public interest.”

Fargo School Board President Jim Johnson said members of his board oppose having anyone other than licensed police or sheriff’s officers carrying weapons in schools.

“That’s our philosophy at this point in time,” he said. “I think we’ll maintain a zero tolerance policy on any firearms that aren’t in the hands of a licensed police officer, for sure.”

Kay Kiefer, president of the West Fargo School board, said her district’s policy mirrors Fargo’s.

“We have very well-trained, well-staffed police departments,” Kiefer said. “We have a presence in our schools with SROs (school resource officers). I think that provides what we need. I would be very hesitant to have us discussing weapons carry by other individuals in executive session.”

McDonald said the problem with the bill is that “it purports that you can discuss this whole policy in closed session. You don’t hear any of the reasons why, any of the pros and cons.

“To me, this is such a major issue,” he said. “Of all the things you’d want the public to be involved with, it is guns in schools. They’re just hung up on this whole idea that the perpetrators will go through the minutes of the school board meeting and find out where the guns are.”

The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders doesn’t have a position on HB 1215, said Bev Nielson, the group’s legislative liaison.

Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said his group is opposed “to the use of concealed weapons in schools, that’s the bottom line.”

Instead, Martinson said his group backs Senate Bill 2267, which provides $10 million for school safety and deferred maintenance. That money can buy security cameras, metal detectors, or help create secure entrances to buildings.

Martinson said he was recently in a small rural school building. All 17 of its doors were open to the public, unlike urban schools where one or two sets of doors may allow access to a building.

“There are lots of things a small school can do to eliminate the possibility of a school shooting short of allowing concealed weapons in schools,” he said.

“I have yet to talk to a teacher that thinks teachers carrying concealed weapons is a good idea. Not one. They don’t want to do that,” Martinson said.

T.J. Jerke, the North Dakota legislative correspondent for Forum News Service, and Matt Cory of The Grand Forks Herald contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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