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Northwest Iowa school district votes to arm staff

Board members sit around three tables talking. They unanimously voted to approve arming staff.
Kendall Crawford
Board members unanimously voted in favor of arming staff in the district.

The Spirit Lake Community School District voted on Monday to allow 10 non-teaching staff members to carry a handgun on campus.

The staff, chosen by Superintendent David Smith, will undergo extensive training by local law enforcement in order to carry – including marksmanship, tactical training and weapon retention. The district hopes the new emergency protocol will better protect students in the case of an active shooter.

“Some people say you're trying to scare people,” Smith said. “But what scares me is a killer killing kids in the classroom. Can we respond immediately, yes or no? That’s what scares me.”

The district took community input for the emergency preparedness plan, after some parents complained of being notified of the protocol change just two days before school started in August. The 50 page plan was revised to take in comments from parents, staff and local emergency management teams.

A community wide-survey of the plan received a majority of support from families and staff. The district recorded 178 responses in support of the measure, with 108 responses opposed.

A parent stands at a podium, addressing board members.
Kendall Crawford
Some parents expressed their gratitude for the emergency plan at a school board meeting on Monday.

Spirit Lake High School Assistant Principal Josh Bolluyt said he believes arming staff is the best way to protect the children.

“Who better to protect them than 10 people that love them and who are willing to put their lives at risk for them?” he said at Monday’s public hearing. “If I want someone to do that for my children, who better than I to do that myself for someone else’s children.”

Staff will be chosen strategically to ensure that an armed employee is in every building. The armed staff will store their weapons in a safe at home or on campus. They will also be expected to pass an in-person mental health screening.

The district will provide the weapons, ammunition, holsters and safes for the authorized individuals.

Many parents thanked the district’s board members for taking a proactive approach to addressing school shootings. Jeremy Pritchard, a parent of three Spirit Lake students, said he felt his children are safer with armed staff on campus.

“I don’t want us to be the next school on the news,” he said.

But some parents and community members expressed concern. Former substitute teacher for the district, Ron Vincelli, said the community should trust law enforcement to protect them.

“I truly believe that more guns is not the answer,” Vincelli said. “It wasn’t the answer in Uvalde. I don’t think it would be here. I think the dangers outweigh the benefits.”

The policy has also received pushback from local Spirit Lake Police Chief Shane Brevik. In a press release issued earlier this month, Brevik said arming staff is an “unworkable solution.”

“It is not realistic to expect that a group of educational or other staff can learn all that would be required to function as a tactical team or unit,” Brevik said. “That takes years of training and experience for law enforcement and other professionals.”

“I don’t want us to be the next school on the news."
Jeremy Pritchard, parent of three students

District members said they are still relying on law enforcement support to implement the emergency response plan. Director of special projects Angela Olsen said the district is working to address Brevik’s concerns.

“Some of it is just going to come, we believe, through joint trainings and continuing that conversation that opens up the avenue to work together and move this plan forward,” she said.

It’s one of two northwest Iowa districts that have opted to arm staff. In October, Cherokee Community Schools voted to exempt authorized staff from the district's no weapons policy.

Fifteen Spirit Lake staff members have already begun training with local firearms instructors at Petersen Firearms Training. The names of the armed staff will not be made public, according to the district.

The board voted unanimously to approve the plan. Board member Greta Gruys said she doesn’t want guns in schools, but she feels they’re necessary given the prevalence of school shootings today.

“I cannot sit back and allow our children to become helpless victims to another senseless tragedy,” Gruys said.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.