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Arkansas' recently formed School Safety Commission is trying to collect as much information as it can, as fast as it can, about existing and needed safeguards in the state's schools.

That is being done to be able to make preliminary recommendations by July 1 to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who appointed the 18-member group last month after the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school. Final recommendations are due to the governor in November.

Commission members last week not only had what Chairman Cheryl May called a "jam-packed" agenda of presentations on mental health and different kinds of school security officers, but also scheduled a May 30 forum to hear what the public wants to see done about school safety. The commission also identified five school districts to visit because of security measures already in the works in those systems.

"As we start framing out what we are doing, we need to first of all understand that one of our primary goals is to identify what is currently being done or happening," May, director of the University of Arkansas System's Criminal Justice Institute, told commission members. "And the second part of that is what are the gaps and what recommendations can we make to fill in those gaps."

The public may submit comments and ideas to the School Safety Commission at Arkansas.SchoolSafetyCommission@arkansas.gov.

Members of the public may sign up to speak at the May 30 forum at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/8G62Z6N.

Links to the online addresses are also on the Arkansas Department of Education website.

The commission will divvy up the visits to school districts in the coming days, with a five-member team going to each selected district: Bentonville, Conway, Westside Consolidated in Jonesboro, Ouachita River and Crossett.

The districts were selected based on their sizes, their locations in the different regions of the state and because of some feature related to safety and security.

Conway, for example, was cited for its emergency response plan and drills.

Bentonville was highlighted for the integration of law enforcement in its emergency plans.

Ouachita River was selected because it is initiating the use of a commissioned school security officer, who is an armed security guard who is not a current law enforcement officer.

Westside was selected because it was the site of the March 1998 shooting of students and teachers, including five deaths, by two students.

The commission's latest five-hour meeting included presentations on mental health resources, law enforcement's role in school safety, and liability insurance.

Betsy Kindall, Arkansas Department of Education's school based mental health specialist, said Arkansas is fairly unique in the nation in that nearly every district provides a mental health professional and/or programs.

Some 30,000 of the state's 479,000 students receive services, mostly at their campuses. Ninety percent of districts do that by contracting with mental health providers. The remaining 10 percent employ their own mental health professionals who both provide direct services to students and coordinate services.

The Education Department works to ensure that there are high quality contracts between the districts and providers, Kindall said. The department also encourages but doesn't require the districts to provide at least one therapist per 500 students.

"If you have a district of 1,000 kids and a therapist is there half a day, one day a week, that's a pretty good indicator that the students are under-identified and under-served for mental health services," Kendall said.

School counselors connect students to the services, but the process really starts in the classrooms, said Kendall, who called for a greater effort to be made in the state to provide teachers and other school workers with the ability to identify and react to emergencies, including mental health crises, until professional help arrives.

"While we understand what to do if someone is having a heart attack in front of us, do you know what to do if someone is having a panic attack in front of you? That is what Mental Health First Aid is all about," she said about an internationally available eight-hour training program to help individuals recognize and respond to symptoms of mental distress and substance abuse.

Other states have embraced the program far more than Arkansas has, she said. While Arkansas currently has about 51 trainers and 3,680 certified Mental Health First Aid providers, nearby Missouri has 283 trainers who have trained nearly 40,000 who have completed the program.

Commission members asked how privacy laws and parental rights affect a school's ability to work with students who have mental health issues.

Commission member David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville School District, said that when a student makes a threat or has a mental illness, just about the only tool a district has is removal of the student from the campus.

When the student returns to the school, possibly after treatment, there is nervousness about whether there has been a full recovery and the potential for a future problem.

Schools don't have to know everything about a student returning from a residential treatment center, Kendall said, but the school needs to know something about that student. That has been a gap, which is beginning to be addressed by care coordinators who help transition students into the traditional school, she said.

In response to other questions, Kendall said it is a local school district's decision on how to respond if parents refuse or resist their child being referred for mental health services.

Commission member Lori Poston noted that if a mental health provider such as herself concludes that a student is a threat to himself or others and the parent refuses hospitalization, a psychiatrist can place a 72-hour hold on the child and the parent can be reported for medical neglect.

May asked about the state's interest in Handle With Care, a program developed in West Virginia in which schools are alerted by law enforcement in the event one of their students has undergone some trauma, such as the arrest of a family member, that could affect the child's school behavior.

Kendall said there is a growing movement in the nation to take into account traumatic experiences endured by children and to better inform educators about the child and handle the child differently in the educational setting.

Lt. Mike Moyer, administrator for the security and alarm licensing section of the Arkansas State Police, described for the commission the superintendent-signed applications that school districts must submit to the state to operate a security department, including one with armed commissioned school security officers, as authorized by Act 393 of 2015. The superintendent's signature ensures that a district's top executive is aware of the security department and armed security guards on campus.

Act 541 of 2017 makes confidential the information on districts or the people operating security, Moyer said.

"We cannot disclose which districts, the names, the numbers, how many commissioned school security officers are working for that district," he said. "If a district is not participating in this type of program, that gives somebody out in the public knowledge that somebody in this school is not armed. It gives away their security."

The commissioned school security officer -- an armed officer -- must undergo at least 60 hours of training from Arkansas State Police-credentialed trainers. Use of deadly force, marksmanship, active shooter training, trauma care and weapon retention are some of the topics covered in that. Twenty-four hours of refresher training is required the second year. To renew the credential, in the third year, requires another year of 24 hours of training.

Every application for a commissioned school security officer requires state and federal background checks. Anyone who has been been convicted of a felony or pleaded no contest or has a sealed offense record is automatically barred from the job, no matter how far back the offense occurred.

Class A misdemeanors can also result in disqualification, if the offenses are related to theft, sexual offenses, violence, elements of dishonesty or a crime against a person. However, if the offense and conviction are more than 10 years old, then it can't be a bar to qualifying for the job.

Unarmed security guards must complete eight hours of training and pass background checks. Their credential is good for two years, at which time they must take six hours of renewal training.

Chester "Bubba" Jones, a school resource officer in the Mountain Home School District, and Eric Huber, supervisor of Safety and Security in the Fort Smith School District, both armed law enforcement officers, described their jobs and security practices for the School Safety Commission.

Jones attributed the success of the school resource officer program in his district to a long-standing memorandum of understanding between the school district and his employer, the Mountain Home Police Department.

He does see general gaps in school security measures, including a lack of a school resource officer for every campus and an ongoing need for training, including training in assessing potential threats to a campus. Adequate mental health resources is a need, as is coordination of and communication among different agencies and individuals that would respond to a campus emergency, he said.

In regard to the possibility of armed commissioned security officers -- who could be teachers -- on campuses, Jones said that policies, protocols and training must be adjusted.

Law enforcement officers' response to an active shooter is to go in and take care of the threat -- "to look for the gunman and take him out," Jones said. Teachers are to stay with their students.

"The protocol is a big question in my mind," Jones said about the use of commissioned security officers and school resource officers. "There is a time and place for any and all options, but there are hurdles to step over to make it happen."

Bill Birch of BancorpSouth Insurance Services addressed the commission about school district and individual liability with the potential for armed guards on school campuses.

Public school districts have total immunity from being held financially responsible, but individuals have some exposure. In the event of actions by an individual, or gross negligence that cause bodily injury, there is potential for individual liability.

School districts have to have policies about the parameters of their security practices, Birch said. Those need to address questions about training and whether armed security guards are authorized to travel with athletic teams to other districts or can chase an intruder several yards away from a school campus.

"The devil is in the details," Birch told the commission.

A Section on 04/09/2018

Print Headline: School safeguards panel's top priority

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