Fort Smith Public Schools will start the 2019-20 school year with its own police department, a move that will allow for greater security in the public schools, Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent, told the school board at a special called meeting Monday (Aug. 12).
The Arkansas State Legislature enacted Act 629 earlier this year. The new legislation allows school districts and other entities to establish police departments. In June, the school board approved establishing a FSPS police department, and July 11, the district’s request to establish a police department was approved by the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training, Brubaker said.
“(This program) builds capacity within the district for security and enables us to help keep students safe,” Brubaker said. “We are grateful to the Fort Smith Police Department and also the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office and this will be one more strategy to use to help keep our students safe.”
In the 2018-19 school year, FSPS had seven school resources officers. Four of those — for both high schools and two of the junior highs — were provided through a partnership with FSPD that has an approximate cost to the city of Fort Smith of $120,000.
The Vision 2023 Strategic Planning team marked additional SROs as a high priority need in 2017, but “citing recruitment and retention issues, the leadership of the Fort Smith Police Department said that the FSPD would not expand the number of officers at FSPS schools through the SRO program,” Brubaker said. Additional SROs were not part of the 2018 Millage Proposal, he added.
However, through juggling other expenses, the district found a way to hire three officers for the 2018-19 school year – for the other two junior highs and one to serve as the SRO for the elementary schools. The district required that Certified School Security Officers candidates also be licensed law enforcement officers, and the officers were overseen by the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, Brubaker said.
Those three officers will begin to transition to the district’s new police department and no longer under the supervision of the sheriff’s office because of Act 629. There will be no additional cost to the district since the officers were already employed by the district, said Bill Hollenbeck, director of security and facilities and former Sebastian County Sheriff. No additional positions have been recommended for this school year.
“It will be the same officers, just different uniforms,” Hollenbeck said. “The same staff will be assigned to the same schools, protecting the future.”
The department will run much like campus police departments at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, Brubaker said. By having its own police department, the FSPS officers will have access to same support system other law enforcement agencies have such as the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC).
“These systems will enhance student and staff safety by giving officers the ability to determine sex offender status or violent criminal history,” a report on the program said.
SROs also will have access to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy and the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute for training, Hollebeck said.
“It ups the level, I think, of protection for our students, our staff and even our community population that comes to our sporting events and extracurricular activities,” Hollenbeck said.
In other business, Brubaker updated the board on the district’s new student medial policy. The FSPS board approved new student policies May 20 that included an update to the district’s student publication policy. At the July 8 called board meeting, the board agreed to update the student handbook to reflect the new policies. The problem is the new school publication policy violated state law.
The new student publication policies, approved by the Fort Smith School Board in May and added to the student handbook in July, state all publications supported financially by the school or published in conjunction with a class are considered school-sponsored publications and as such “do not provide a forum for public expression.”
However, Act 912, enacted into law earlier this year, changed state law to ensure that “students may exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Also, both the old state law and Act 912 state that school media policies should be “developed in conjunction with the student publication media advisors and the appropriate school administrators,” said Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director.
Brubaker said Monday night the student media advisors being involved in the process were added with the new law. Brubaker told board members Monday night that a meeting was set with student media advisors and members of administration to draft a new student media policy. He hoped that policy would be brought to the board at its Aug. 26 meeting. Policy changes require two readings before the board can adopt them as new policy.