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Armed 'sentinels' could soon be walking the halls of South Dakota elementary and high schools after the largely rural state's governor signed a controversial bill into law Friday.
South Dakota is believed to be the first to pass such legislation, although several school districts in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere in the nation allow staff members and security guards to carry guns.
The United States has been embroiled in a debate over gun control and the best way to protect children after a man armed with an assault rifle slaughtered 20 six- and seven-year-olds, and six staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
While many people are calling for better background checks and the renewal of an expired ban on assault weapons, the National Rifle Association has led a charge among gun advocates to instead respond with armed guards at every school.
At least 20 states have considered legislation to arm educators but the bulk of the efforts have failed to gain any momentum, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Governor Dennis Daugaard's office said the bill gives local school districts a new choice when it comes to protecting students.
"In rural school districts (and South Dakota has many), law enforcement is often many miles from schools, and in those areas, schools may wish to have sentinels," spokesman Joe Kafka told AFP.
The school sentinels program would be open to teachers, principals, janitors and other staff members such as security guards and also to "volunteers."
"Sentinels would have to take the same weapons training as is required of all South Dakota law officers," Kafka added.
The bill has faced significant opposition, including from educators, according to local media reports.
Tim Mitchell, superintendent of the Rapid City Area Schools district, said the bill does not address broader safety issues such as improving mental health services for students or updating buildings to make schools physically safer.
"We are looking at lots of different areas of how we can improve security," he told the Rapid City Journal. "I'm not recommending that that (the bill) be one of the options we look at here in Rapid City."
Don Kirkegaard, superintendent of the Meade School District, said the law was rushed through without proper review.
"I just wish ... everybody would have talked a little bit together before we started passing legislation," he told the paper.
"I don't believe there will be very many districts, at least to begin with, who are going to jump at putting sentinels in a school until they've done a lot of research."