PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Fresh off a Senate win, legislation to boost legal protection for people working in South Dakota schools is on its way to the state House of Representatives.
Senators voted 22-12 on Wednesday for SB-129. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Stalzer, it calls for increased criminal penalties in cases of simple assault or aggravated assault, if the act was committed against any public or non-public school employee during a school activity.
Simple assault would be upgraded to a class-6 felony punishable by up to two years in state prison. It’s currently a class-1 misdemeanor punishable by a year in county jail.
Aggravated assault would become a class-2 felony punishable by up to 25 years in state prison. It’s currently a class-3 felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The stiffer penalties could apply not only to student-teacher altercations but to any circumstance involving a school, from challenging a referee at a sports event or threatening a teacher during parent conferences to one school employee mistreating another.
School employees would be added to an already protected class that includes law enforcement officers, firefighters, ambulance service personnel, state Department of Corrections employees and contractors, and other public officers.
Stalzer recalled a student taking a swing at him when he was a teacher in the early 1980s. “I think the teachers deserve the extra protections we give other professions,” he said.
Democrat Sen. Shawn Bordeaux opposed the change. “I think it does a little too much overreach in what it’s purported to do,” he said.
Looking ahead, Republican Rep. Tim Reisch is lead sponsor in the House. He is a former state adjutant general and served more than 16 years as cabinet secretary for several departments under three different governors, including twice at DOC. He previously was Miner County sheriff.
The Senate vote came one day after the bill’s first hearing.
“This is a safety issue,” Wade Pogany, executive director for the Associated School Boards of South Dakota told the Senate Education Committee. “Our administrators have asked for something that has more teeth in it than a simple misdemeanor.”
Said Sandra Waltman from the South Dakota Education Association, “When the employees are safe, our students are safe.”
Terra Larson, representing the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the legislation applies to students. She said that teens’ frontal lobes aren’t fully formed yet and they can have a tendency to be more violent, calling it “a bridge too far.”
Republican Sen. Tim Reed was a co-sponsor. “That’s what we’re trying to stop, the chaos in the school,” he said. According to Reed, school superintendents have talked about losing teachers and students getting less of an education because of the chaos.
Republican Sen. Tom Pischke disagreed that it would solve the situation. “I don’t think we’re going to fix the issue by creating more laws or creating harsher penalties,” he said.