Arkansas School Safety Commission begins work in wake of Uvalde shooting

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 482 views 

The Arkansas School Safety Commission reconvened Tuesday (June 14) after being called back into action by Gov. Asa Hutchinson following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The group has been tasked to report by Oct. 1 to the governor with new recommendations.

The group’s chair, Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, assigned members to five subcommittees that were part of the original commission. Hutchinson formed that commission in 2018 following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Many of the members of that original commission are on the current one.

Hutchinson reconvened the commission via executive order on June 10. He has asked the members to review the final report published in November 2018, determine which recommendations have not been achieved, and identify new best practices that have been developed since its first report.

The commission’s initial report is due Aug. 1, with the final report due Oct. 1. With such a tight timeline, the subcommittees will start meeting this week to prepare recommendations. Those subcommittees are Mental Health and Prevention; Law Enforcement and Security; Audits, Emergency Operation Plans and Drills; Intelligence and Communications; and Physical Security.

Members of the commission include, among others, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge; Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators; and Linda Speer Graham, director of mental health and crisis services at Nettleton Public Schools. Speer noted while introducing herself that her superintendent, Dr. Karen Curtner, was the principal at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro when two students killed four students and a teacher there in 1998.

Another commission member, Bill Hollenbeck, chief of the Fort Smith Public Schools Police Department, said his district had recently completed $15.1 million in school security upgrades.

May said commission members previously had agreed it would recommend a comprehensive safety strategy focused on prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. May reviewed what has happened with most of the 30 recommendations made by the commission in 2018. She said a little more than 60% of school respondents had implemented a specific curriculum after the commission had recommended all schools should create a positive climate that deters bullying behaviors.

The commission in 2018 had recommended that no campus be without an armed presence. May said 84% of districts have one. Seventy-five percent of districts in 2019 employed at least one school resource officer, while 20% used commissioned school security officers, which can be private security or school staff that must complete 60 hours of training to carry a gun. Arkansas now has 460 school resource officers employed by 223 districts, and 20% of the state’s districts now have a school resource officer on every campus.

May said a recommendation that all districts should provide training in Youth Mental Health First Aid was followed by legislation requiring school counselors and school resource officers to receive the training every four years. She said the Arkansas Center for School Safety has trained more than 650 school resource officers as well as school counselors and staff. In addition, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Arkansas AWARE project has trained 2,500 educators, counselors and community members in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

May said 98% of the state’s school districts have designated a staff member as a school safety coordinator, which was another of the commission’s recommendations in 2018. Following a recommendation that nurses and staff be trained in emergency response, the Criminal Justice Institute has trained 715 school nurses to administer the opioid rescue drug naloxone.

Following a recommendation that school districts implement strategies to promote the reporting of suspicious behaviors and threats, May said 45% of school districts have an anonymous reporting system. However, only 28% have a behavioral threat assessment team, and not all are trained. Unlike many states, Arkansas does not have a statewide anonymous reporting system.

May referenced two studies by the Secret Service, including one published in 2019, that researched 41 incidents of targeted school violence between January 2008 through December 2017. That report found that 34 were male and seven were female, but there was no profile for a student attacker or a profile for the type of school being attacked. Many were motivated by grievances. (Link here for the PDF of that report.)

A 2021 study by the Secret Service researched 67 plots that were averted between 2006 and 2018. It found that targeted school violence could be prevented when communities intervene after identifying warning signs. (Link here for the PDF of that report.)