The Arkansas School Safety Commission discussed a slew of recommendations Tuesday about what can be done to improve safety at Arkansas schools, but commissioners will have to determine how to pay for such measures.
Automated locking doors, license plate readers, layered anonymous reporting options and more unified training programs were among the recommendations presented by commission subcommittees, which also provided updates on the progress schools have made on recommendations from 2018.
Dr. Cheryl May, director for the Criminal Justice Institute and head of the Arkansas School Safety Commission, said “tremendous progress” has been made based off subcommittee reports but there is still work that needs to be done.
“We need to be able to refine and provide additional guidance, but there are some areas that I have talked about before, and that is the threat part of it,” May said. “How do we handle and identify threats? Also, from the physical security perspective, being able to prioritize what is most important for our schools is going to be critical in helping our schools move forward.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstated the Arkansas School Safety Commission on June 10 in the aftermath of several mass shootings across the nation, including the May 24 school shooting that left 19 children and two adults dead in Uvalde, Texas.
Members of the original commission created in March 2018 submitted 30 recommendations in their original 124-page report, and school districts across the state have implemented many of the recommendations, according to the governor’s office.
Under the governor’s executive order, the commission will review its final report published in November 2018 and provide an update on the status of school safety across the state.
The commission has been charged with updating an analysis of the safety of the state’s K-12 schools, taking into consideration the physical and mental health of students, and determine which findings and recommendations from the previous report have not been remediated or achieved, according to the governor’s executive order.
The commission also must identify any new recommendations on best practices regarding school safety that have developed since the commission’s 2018 report and submit a report and recommendations to the governor by Aug. 1. Subsequent reports will be submitted by the commission’s chair.
The commission’s final report and recommendations will be submitted to the governor no later than Oct. 1, at which time the commission’s work will conclude.
One of the main challenges identified Tuesday was how to pay for new recommendations that are being discussed.
“I know something that hangs over the heads of these committee members and, more importantly, the heads of the school administrators is the cost of all these great ideas and recommendations,” said Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who is a member of the committee. “For school administrators, that is their biggest challenge. Particularly when we look at the legal challenges to making sure all of our schools and education is equal.”
Rutledge suggested that subcommittees and possibly legislators who are keeping up with the commission might look into funding mechanisms and reach out to the state’s federal delegation about finding ways to pay for these ideas.
“Last week I personally spoke to Sen. [Tom] Cotton about this with regards to the [Department of Justice] cops grant, and rather than have the federal government take money away from our local schools or states because they don’t implement the red flag laws, I would rather us see funds be used to provide [school resource officers] in every school district across the country,” she said. “Unless we are able to provide some solutions on how they can implement these recommendations, it’s very difficult for our school administrators to even consider adding new expenses.”
May agreed the cost of these recommendations will need to be examined.
“I think that when we go to make a recommendation that it’s critically important that we understand the cost of that recommendation,” she said.
May said she is reviewing a variety of funding options to see if they can be applied.
“Once we have a chance to look at these documents, that might help some,” she said. “We may be able to pull this together, and as an appendix or addendum to the commission report be able to add this so that they can know that there is that funding available.”
Multiple members spoke about the importance of schools knowing what is available when it comes to training and how to coordinate a response with local emergency response agencies.
“Communication [with the schools] in general is important,” May said. “Whether it be with what the commission is doing, or whether it be with their local law enforcement, their fire department, their Office of Emergency Management and even as Dr. [Laura] Dunn said, the parents.
“It’s critically important schools re-ensure everybody that they are doing everything they possibly can to make their schools as safe as possible.”
May said reinstatement of the commission also allows members to clearly define some of the terms of their recommendations.
“There were things that as a commission last time we thought everybody understood what we were talking about, but not everybody did,” she said.
Enforcement of the recommendations is another challenge.
“We need to determine a way that these school boards and administrators are truly reading and understanding the recommendations,” May said.
Chief Chris Chapmond of the Hot Springs Police Department told committee members there needs to be a way to determine whether school board members and administrators are reading the recommendations.
“Whether that is mandate or however you have that conversation, there is no use in us writing these recommendations unless they are read, understood and followed,” Chapmond said
Bill Hollenbeck, chief of police for Fort Smith Public Schools, agreed.
“All the hard work this committee is doing and has done in the past is frankly for naught unless we get it in front of the right eyes,” Hollenbeck said. “We have to get buy-in with our school boards, with our superintendents, with our staff and with our law enforcement agencies or the work that we do will be compiled into a little booklet and potentially put on a shelf.
“I think it’s important we have some sort of certainty that the right people are looking at this hard work you all are doing.”
May said in the past the commission has discussed mandates for schools, but there must be a middle ground. She noted that Texas is very strict regarding its school safety mandates but that hasn’t prevented school shootings from occurring.
“I think there has to be a balance between allowing schools to be able to implement and look at these and promoting what we do,” she said. “None of us want our work to go down the drain, and yet at the same time when you start to mandate it I think that opens up a huge chasm of potential things we have to think about.”
May told subcommittee members their immediate task is to try to identify questions for potentially another school safety assessment.
“I don’t think we need to do the same survey we did before,” she said. “We should try to identify what these questions are and why we ask those questions.”