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Groups offer ideas to make Arkansas schools safer

Commission hears range of recommendations by Cynthia Howell | August 30, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Presenters to the Arkansas School Safety Commission on Wednesday called for stronger gun violence prevention laws, better screening for and treatment of early childhood trauma, and accreditation of schools that meet high standards for safety.

The School Safety Commission heard from the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America organization, Arkansas Department of Health's medical director of child health, and two city police chiefs at a meeting in which commissioners also finalized a survey that will go to all school district superintendents next month to determine what campus safety measures they currently have in place.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the 18-member commission in March in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 students and adults by an intruder at a Parkland, Fla., high school. Another 10 people were subsequently shot and killed at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school.

The Arkansas commission of educators, law enforcement personnel and mental health providers -- chaired by Cheryl May, executive director of the University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute -- submitted its preliminary recommendations to Hutchinson in July and is now compiling information for a final report due Nov. 30.

The initial recommendations state that no campus should ever be without armed presence when staff and children are present, and includes options for increasing armed presence on school campuses.

Those options include the already legally permitted "school resource officers" who are police officers assigned to schools, and "commission school security officers" who can be teachers and other school district personnel who are not police officers but meet training requirements to carry and use weapons, if necessary, on campuses.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots organization now in all 50 states, has campaigned against armed educators on school grounds.

Eve Jorgensen, president of the group's Arkansas chapter, told the commission that while the organization supports U.S. constitutional rights to keep and bear arms, there is no evidence that arming teachers ensures school safety.

"Arming teachers creates the illusion we are protecting children, but we are putting them more in harm's way," she said, listing examples of unintentional or accidental gun firings at schools in different parts of the country.

She also cited a recent FBI report on some 250 cases of active shooter threats in which seven were stopped by armed intervenors and 22 others were successfully stopped by unarmed intervenors.

Arming educators puts law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders at risk, it also raises legal and insurance liability issues and costs for schools, she said.

"We like to ask that in its final report the commission make more clear the dangers associated with arming staff," Jorgensen said.

"Evidence and research should guide this discussion," she continued, "and the best way to protect children from school shootings is to pass gun safety laws that prevent people with dangerous histories from getting a gun. We would like to ask the commission to consider gun violence prevention policies in its final report especially since the governor's recent comments showed that he is now open to having discussion about gun violence prevention measures statewide."

Dr. Alan Mease, a pediatrician and the state Health Department's medical director for child and adolescent health, told the commission that a solution to school violence is the early identification and treatment of students who have had "adverse experiences" and "toxic stress" dating back to their conception, infancy and toddler-hood that affected brain development.

Adverse experiences for a child include jailed parents, divorced or separated parents, and economic hardship. Other adverse experiences are living in a home with mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.

Mease said there is a relationship between a child's multiple adverse experiences and a tendency to violence but that it can be mitigated in different ways such as providing support to parents who themselves suffered adverse childhood experiences and providing children with a nurturing relationship, be it with a parent or someone else.

A child brought up in a traumatic environment is prepared only to survive and reproduce, and will not and cannot do well in school and will not respond to traditional discipline measures without positive supporting relationships, Mease said. Educators and campus security personnel need to be aware of that so that they can help a child develop resilience, he said.

Mease proposed that schoolchildren be screened for multiple adverse experiences and emotional health, just as they are screened for immunizations. Those identified with issues and their families can be provided with support such as therapy, medication and positive relationships. Key to that is good communication about the student among school, family and medical personnel.

"It's a big ask for schools," Mease acknowledged.

Also Wednesday, Alma Police Chief Russell White and Siloam Springs Police Chief Jim Wilmeth, representing the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, reacted to the commission's preliminary recommendations and offered additional provisions.

White suggested that education leaders be provided training to aid them in the selection and purchasing of security measures in an order that will serve them best.

He pointed out, for example, that purchasing large numbers of cameras for surveillance before there is someone to respond to problems revealed by the camera video can be less than effective.

Educators are smart people but security is not their area of expertise and some training would help, he said.

Wilmeth cautioned that school resource officers -- police assigned to schools-- can't be the sole protector of a campus if the officer also has teaching, mentoring, and investigating duties.

Wilmeth proposed that schools and districts be "incentivized" to adopt best practices in regard to school safety and security by offering accreditation to those who put into operation certain standards.

Metro on 08/30/2018

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