Public education advocates look to override Gov. Kristi Noem's 'special treatment' veto
"From our perspective, this is really about making schools safe," one public education spokesperson said. "When the school employees are safe, that means the students are safe."
PIERRE, S.D. — Public education lobbyists are working to override a veto by Gov. Kristi Noem on legislation they say is about protecting educators.
If signed, Senate Bill 129 would have made teachers and other school staff in public and non-public schools part of provisions that heighten punishments for assaulting a variety of public employees, such as law enforcement and health care personnel.
In her March 9 veto statement, Noem criticized the bill as “special treatment” for school officials and noted it would treat them “the same as law enforcement officers in instances of assault in their official duties.”
“South Dakota already has a strong and fair criminal justice system, and school districts have robust disciplinary policies tailored to address behavior within their districts,” Noem wrote. “The changes Senate Bill 129 would make open the door for additional occupations to ask for special treatment under the law.”
To reach a two-thirds majority in each chamber and override Noem’s veto — which would require improving on the bill’s first voyage through the legislative process by seven votes in the House and two votes in the Senate — Rob Monson, a lobbyist with the School Administrators of South Dakota, says he is, in part, emphasizing that teachers and other school personnel are sometimes put in dangerous situations.
“[Gov. Noem] doesn't really talk about the fact that nurses, paramedics, and others are already included under current law. And I would align teachers with many of those professions as being in some of the same situations,” Monson said. “More of these kids who would normally be in some sort of a juvenile detention or something are ending up back in our schools, where they are a potential threat to educators.”
Monson says those conversations are just beginning.
Under current rules, heightened punishments for assault include several professions: law enforcement officers; firefighters; ambulance personnel; Department of Corrections employees and contractors; as well as health care personnel like doctors and nurses who are engaging in patient care.
When committed against these professions, simple assault, usually a Class 1 misdemeanor, becomes a Class 6 felony, which carries a potential two-year prison sentence and a $4,000 fine.
"It's been a long time since I taught high school," Sen. Jim Stalzer, of Sioux Falls, the prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said during an education committee hearing in early February. "But I did have a student assault me, took a swing at me. If I had been a small female teacher, there could have been some very serious injuries."
On its way through the South Dakota Legislature, some lawmakers criticized the change as potentially going too far with its coverage of all school employees and contractors.
“It applies to coaches and referees at a basketball game. And that's where I think you'll see this more often take place,” Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, said during a Senate debate on Feb. 15. “And I submit to you that if someone is heated, and they get mad at a coach, there are some words exchanged and someone cocks a fist. They shouldn't do it. It's a crime. Right now it's simple assault. But should they be a felon for that?”
Another opponent of the bill, both in committee and floor debate, was Sen. Shawn Bordeaux, of Mission, who worried about how this discretionary law would be used in disputes involving Native students.
“When you live in a community like mine, a lot more reporting goes on,” Bordeaux said. “A lot more of this ends up happening in the courtroom than it should as opposed to other communities where maybe things are kind of allowed to be sorted out with the parents.”
Yet Sen. Bryan Breitling, of Miller, defended the change as a “tool in the toolbox,” not something that would be abused by school employees.
‘We look at every specific situation and every encounter. Just because we have the ability to use this as the last resort doesn't mean it's the first thing,” he said. “If we have a specific student that is continuously doing some very aggressive things. This is one way for the teachers and school district to handle that.”
Sandra Waltman, the government relations director with the South Dakota Education Association, echoed that sentiment, noting the change is mainly about deterrence.
“From our perspective, this is really about making schools safe. When the school employees are safe, that means the students are safe,” Waltman said. “We're just simply asking educators to be treated like other public servants.”
Lawmakers will reconvene on March 27 to consider gubernatorial vetoes. So far, Noem has vetoed four bills, though one — an increase to the occupancy tax in business improvement districts — has already been reconsidered.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.