Arkansas school safety report calls for armed presence at all times

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,521 views 

Every school campus should have an armed presence at all times, and state law potentially should be changed so doors and exits must remain locked during school hours. Those were some of the new, revised and restated recommendations in the interim report published by the 24-member Arkansas School Safety Commission.

The interim report was released Aug. 2 in a press conference by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute and the commission’s chair. The final report is due Oct. 1.

Hutchinson created the commission in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and reactivated it following this year’s shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. He said most of the recommendations from the commission’s first report in 2018 have been adopted and have made schools safer.

The report says the commission anticipates recommending that every campus have an armed presence “at all times.” The first report recommended that schools have an armed presence when staff and children are in class or in an extracurricular activity. It anticipates adding the words “at all times” based on the lack of an armed officer in Uvalde. The governor later said it would be up to the Legislature whether to mandate if every school has an armed presence.

The commission is listing as a potential recommendation that state law be changed so doors and exits remain locked during school hours. They now are required to be unlocked to comply with the fire code.

The report also recommends the creation of a School Safety Tip Line Committee that would investigate establishing a statewide tip line. The report says 51% of public middle and high schools across the country have a tip line in operation, with 60% being less than three years old. According to the report, 77% of principals believed their tip lines had made them more aware of their school safety issues.

Hutchinson said all students should have access to mental health services in person or through telemedicine. He said the school is often the only resource for mental health services that can be provided to students. He said each campus should have a school safety coordinator in charge of creating a culture of compliance with increased audits and drills.

May emphasized the importance of accountability, saying the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde had a “culture of noncompliance” with established safety protocols.

The governor said the recommendations demonstrate the need for a $50 million grant program that he will include in the agenda of the upcoming special session, which is scheduled to begin next week. He said the funding could go to upgrades in security, access and cameras. He said the program’s parameters would be outlined by the Legislature, and he expects broad support. The rules would be developed by the Department of Education, with the Arkansas Legislative Council giving final approval. The governor said he wants the rules adopted as quickly as possible.

May said the report stressed the importance of implementing comprehensive strategies with a layered approach, saying no single action will make schools safe. An exterior door in Uvalde that failed to lock allowed the shooter inside the building. But if all the interior doors had locked and if a school resource officer, or school law enforcement officer, had been present, the tragedy perhaps could have been averted.

The governor said he had signed four bills into law after the previous commission report. Those laws, among other changes, mandated that school safety assessments be performed every three years, and that 90% of school counselors’ time be devoted to counseling students. He said the number of school resource officers in Arkansas school districts has increased from 315 in 2018 to 460 this year. Also, school districts now can use state partnership funding for facility security projects.