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Hearing held on rules for North Dakota's 'Armed First Responder' program

Hearing held on rules for North Dakota's 'Armed First Responder' program

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Department of Public Instruction officials took public comments on the proposed rules for North Dakota's Armed First Responder program at the Capitol Monday, moving closer to formalizing a program aimed at boosting student safety.

The meeting was the next step in the process to set guidelines for the program approved by the 2019 Legislature giving school boards the authority to designate a person who may carry or have access to a concealed weapon at a school. 

The only person who spoke was Susan Beehler, of Mandan, who was wearing a red "Moms Demand Action" T-shirt.

Beehler, who hadn't yet read the proposed rules, wants to see background checks done on armed responder applicants, as well as extensive interviews with members of the applicants' household and other people who know the applicant personally, to ensure that domestic abusers do not have access to a weapon near children.

Beehler said she was victim of domestic violence growing up.

"My concern is bringing somebody in that's respected in the community but you might not know what had gone on in their household," she said.

The proposed rules require armed first responder applicants to undergo a criminal background check and receive approval from local law enforcement agencies as well as the school board. The applicant also must undergo a mental health evaluation.

Under the proposed rules, an armed first responder may be anyone present at a school who does not directly supervise children. He or she must complete a training course similar to what law enforcement would undergo, or must be a law enforcement officer retired within the previous three years. The applicant must posses a valid Class 1 concealed carry license and complete a safety program that includes armed response training, crisis management training, and defibrillator, CPR and 'stop bleeding' training.

Its takes about 40 hours to complete the law enforcement portion of the training, with about five hours of refresher training required per year, said Stan Schauer, a Department of Public Instruction official and the lead drafter of the proposed rules.

Schauer said he's confident in the rules that he and a collaborative team of stakeholders came up with. They include members of North Dakota Small Organized Schools, North Dakota School Boards Association, North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, the Attorney General's office, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Department of Emergency Services.

"I think it's a really good version because it makes the school look at the entire school safety plan," Schauer said. "Not just, 'We're giving a gun to someone to make our school safer.'"

The proposed rules require school districts that want an armed first responder to go through a process of identifying threats and risks through an emergency operations assessment, then work closely with local law enforcement and the state's Homeland Security Division to create a school safety plan that includes an armed first responder.

Local law enforcement will know the identity of the armed first responder and will train with that person to provide a coordinated response in the event of an active shooter emergency, but the identity of the responder will not be disclosed to the public.

The school safety plan requires approval from multiple state agencies along with the Department of Public Instruction. The school must participate in annual active shooter training.

One principal from a rural school district has expressed interest in the program so far, Schauer said. He declined to say which school district.

The program is aimed at smaller, rural schools that have a longer law enforcement response time than do schools in the state's bigger cities, but Schauer said the law does not preclude larger schools from designating an armed first responder.

"It's open to any school, public or private," he said.

The only costs for schools that choose to take part would be the cost of training the responder and the cost of the gun selected, as well as a lockbox if a school decides to go that route.

The Department of Public Instruction will take public comments until 5 p.m. on Dec. 19. The agency then will make any tweaks to the rules before submitting them to the attorney general's office and the Legislature's interim Administrative Rules Committee for final approval. 

The interim committee meets next on March 5, 2020. If the rules are approved, school districts interested in the program could begin the process of applying and implementing an armed first responder plan on April 1. 

People can submit comments on the proposed rules to the Department of Public Instruction by contacting Jim Upgren by phone at (701) 328-2244 or by email at jimupgren@nd.gov.

A copy of the proposed rules is available online at the Department of Public Instruction website.

Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com

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