Arkansas public school campuses should always have an armed presence when staff and children are present, according to a preliminary report by the 18-member Arkansas School Safety Commission.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson formed the commission by executive order to craft recommendations for school security in the wake of the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead. Hutchinson released the report during a press conference July 3.
The preliminary report includes 19 recommendations. It was due July 1. The final report is due Nov. 30 prior to the 2019 legislative session.
Hutchinson appointed as chair Dr. Cheryl May, director of the University of Arkansas System’s Criminal Justice Institute. The full commission has met nine times and has also met in subcommittees, and commission members have visited campuses. One of those visits was to the Westside School District near Jonesboro, where two students killed four students and a teacher in 1998.
Hutchinson said the commission’s proposals include recommendations for school districts, ideas requiring a review by the Department of Education, and ideas requiring legislation.
“The school districts are unique to themselves in terms of their fiscal capabilities, as I said the culture, and so we want mandates to require assessments,” he said. “We don’t want mandates to tell them how high the fence should be built, or what kind of surveillance should be conducted, or what kind of armed security should be present.”
Hutchinson said 68% of the state’s 238 school districts have some armed security presence. The number of school resource officers has increased by 92 in the last five years. That availability should be expanded, Hutchinson said.
Among the commission’s other findings is that school districts that choose to use commissioned school security officers (CCSOs) should follow the example set by the Clarksville School District. CCSOs are trained staff members with access to firearms in the event of an emergency. Requirements for their use were described by Act 393 of 2015. Clarksville goes beyond those requirements by including a psychological exam, drug testing, and regular training with local law enforcement. Hutchinson emphasized that teachers should not be required to carry a firearm.
The report says schools should layer their security strategies by recruiting retired law enforcement officers as CCSOs and substitute teachers, and by finding ways to increase law enforcement officers’ visibility on campus.
The report does include proposals that would mandate actions by school districts. It proposes requiring districts to form a safety and security team composed of school administrators and staff as well as first responders in the community. The teams would be required to conduct comprehensive safety assessments every three years. Schools also would be required to provide an up-to-date floor plan of all buildings to the county emergency manager.
The plan also includes recommendations and requirements for student behavior and mental health. Schools should conduct school climate surveys and would be required to develop action plans. School districts should establish a behavioral threat assessment team and process, the report says. They should create strategies to promote anonymous reporting of suspicious behaviors, and students and staff should learn how to recognize at-risk behavior. All schools should be required to have anti-bullying programs, and students should have enhanced access to mental health services.
Under a 1991 state law, school counselors are required to spend at least 75% of their time in counseling and no more than 25% of their time in administrative work. Hutchinson said in the press conference that the law doesn’t have enough enforcement provisions, and he is directing the Arkansas Department of Education to review the law and to work with the General Assembly to amend it.