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Bismarck police Officer Preston McKay, the school resource officer at Century High School, stands in the hallway in May 2018 as the class final bell rings and students leave at the end of the day. McKay has been the SRO for about six years and walks the halls and commons area daily to make his presence known, while building a rapport with students and ensuring the school has a safe environment for learning and activities. Mike McCleary, Bismarck Tribune

Rules outlining North Dakota's armed first responder program being drafted

BISMARCK — The nearest law enforcement office for the small town of Edmore is about 40 miles away in Devils Lake. For Edmore Superintendent Frank Schill, this is a concern.

The district has about 50 students and, like many small, rural schools in the state, no school resource officer.

With school shootings making headlines — including the May 7 shooting at a Colorado high school that left one student dead — Schill said his district is evaluating options to enhance school safety, including the state's yet-to-be-established armed first responder program.

North Dakota lawmakers passed a bill this year that would allow schools to develop a plan with the state Department of Public Instruction for an armed first responder, who may not be anyone with direct supervision of students.

Under the program, schools must provide a "security system plan," which requires approval from local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security's North Dakota office. The person selected by the school to take part in the program must also undergo training.

It's not clear how many schools will sign up. State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said her department, the attorney general's office and Homeland Security's office in North Dakota are drafting rules to govern the program.

Baesler said she hopes the agencies will have a draft of the rules done by June 13. They will then be sent for input from her school safety partners, an impromptu group she formed after the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February 2018. The group includes the state teachers union, North Dakota United.

The armed first responder program likely will not be in place by the fall, as that is when DPI and the other agencies expect to have an outline of the program to the Legislature's administrative rules committee for approval, according to Baesler.

"We want to make sure we do it well rather than do it quickly," she said.

Small school districts in North Dakota were supportive of the armed first responder bill this year because of issues including law enforcement response time and the lack of school resource officers, according to ElRoy Burkle, executive director of North Dakota Small Organized Schools.

Burkle said he's aware of some districts that are up to 50 miles away from law enforcement. He surveyed his members this year about whether they would be interested in the option of having an armed first responder, and eight schools responded that they would.

"It provides the local school districts with an option to consider and they make the call," said Burkle, who testified in support of the bill.

In the absence of a school resource officer, some districts have taken advantage of active shooter response training, such as Alert, Lock-down, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, or ALICE, training. Schill said he took the training about three years ago in Devils Lake, which then opened up discussions about school safety in his district.

"It really opened my eyes, which I shared with my board, (that) the traditional lock-down training really wasn't intended for an active shooter. It was really intended for the drive-by shootings in California," he said.

His school board then decided to do ALICE training with teachers, staff and students at the school. Now, they do monthly active shooter drills in conjunction with fire drills.

Schill said there haven't been any active shooter incidents since he's been superintendent but that having an armed responder could be an effective tool.

"The (school) board sees there's a potential need for a first responder but have not committed to going that route because they don't know what the details look like at this time," he said.

The armed first responder bill was brought by Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, who saw the need when he was Burleigh County sheriff. He said the sheriff's department had schools in its jurisdiction that he "knew we couldn't respond to in a timely manner."

"I think it's a good bill. I think it's going to serve a purpose and I think some communities are going to utilize it — that's the most important part," he said.