Arkansas school safety panel gives final report to governor

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) receives the School Safety Commission’s final report from commission chairman Cheryl May (center) on Monday afternoon at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission on Monday presented to Gov. Asa Hutchinson its final, 124-page report -- including 30 recommendations, commentary and resources -- on ways to improve the safety of students and staff in Arkansas' schools.

Hutchinson, whose 68th birthday was Monday, called the commission's work "an extraordinary exercise that exceeded my expectations."

The governor created the 18-member safety commission last March in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 killing of 17 students and staff members by an intruder at a Parkland, Fla., high school.

The Arkansas commission's recommendations -- none of which are mandatory for schools and districts -- address the areas of mental health and prevention, law enforcement and security, emergency planning and drills, communications and reporting, and physical building security.

The proposals, for example, call for positive school climate programs that deter bullying behaviors, an "armed presence" when students and staff are on campus, and revisions to the state's funding for school construction to accommodate safety and security upgrades.

Still other recommendations call for every district to be in direct communication with local law enforcement, for every campus to designate a staff member as school safety coordinator and for a comprehensive school safety assessment be done every three years.

The governor, who is a former U.S. attorney, congressman and administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as a former undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said he believes the now-completed review of safety steps for Arkansas' schools tops anything else done in the nation.

"This is comprehensive in its breadth and comprehensive in its recommendations, and I already know that it has had a very significant impact on our districts in terms of enhanced safety," he said at a news conference in the Capitol.

Hutchinson said the report meshes with his philosophy that safety and security decisions are best made at the local school and school-district levels because of the differences among districts in terms of their resources and community beliefs.

Not all the recommendations will cost money to carry out, he said, but could result in added responsibilities for existing staff. He cited as an example the call for a staff member to be designated as a safety coordinator.


The commission recommended in its preliminary report in July and again in the final document that no school should be without an armed presence when students and staff are present.

That armed presence can be in the form of a school resource officer who is a law enforcement officer and whose salary is often shared by the school district and local police agency.

The armed presence can also be a "commissioned school security officer" who is a teacher, support staff member or administrator and who is allowed by state law to carry a gun on campus, if that person undergoes 60 hours of initial training and 24 hours of training in each subsequent year on how to use the weapon to defend against a gunman on campus.

In the 2017-18 school year, there were 316 school resource officers in 156 of the state's 235 school districts, or 66 percent of the state's districts, according to the commission's report.

As for commissioned school security officers, the commission's 57-question survey of superintendents about their school security measures showed that 20 of the 135 responding districts have armed one or more of their staff members.

In response to questions, Hutchinson said he did not believe that the recommendation for an armed presence at school should be made mandatory for schools, nor was he prepared to say that other components of the commission's report should become law.

"Just because there is a recommendation made, I'm not in favor of putting that into law. I have enough confidence in our local school districts that they will respond appropriately and adjust as needed to their local sensibilities, some of their local uniqueness. I don't believe it is necessary to put all these recommendations ... into a legislative mandate," he said.

Lawmakers, however, should look at the possibility of altering the state's school facility funding program -- either by changes in state law or state rules -- to allow it to be used to pay for security features in a school buildings, the governor said. Such features include particular kinds of door locks, windows and cameras as well as vestibules that keep visitors out of the main part of a school until they are specifically allowed in.

The state's facilities partnership program provides a share of necessary funding to school districts for construction of their academic buildings and for replacement of their mechanical systems. The state's share of the costs is determined by the local property tax wealth of a school district, with districts that generate less revenue from local taxes receiving a greater percentage of state aid.

Consideration will also be given on the state level, Hutchinson said, to the availability of mental health services.

"That's been a priority of mine," he said and referred to drug treatment counseling and juvenile justice system reforms in his administration.

"We would like to say our school counselors are sufficient if they spend the time necessary in direct counseling, but they are not equipped to handle some of the more difficult challenges ... and they have to be able to refer them to a mental health provider in that community," he said. "That's something we'll continue to look at -- what is our level of resources in our communities in terms of mental health support, because that also will help our schools."

The governor said that the report -- which cites other reports from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and refers to training programs such as Youth Mental Health First Aid -- will not be a report that sits unused on a desk.


Cheryl May, chairman of the commission and executive director of the University of Arkansas' Criminal Justice Institute, cited results from the superintendent survey that indicate that 76 percent of the 135 responding districts have planned changes in the physical security of their buildings in light of the preliminary report.

Another 57 percent of survey responders were planning changes in their law enforcement and security measures and 55 percent were looking at changes in mental health and prevention measures.

Monday's presentation of the report to Hutchinson marked the end of the commission's work, but the governor said he expects the Arkansas Department of Education in the next year to review school safety matters, to see the measure of implementation of the security recommendations and to identify any gaps that need to be addressed.

"I hope that we'll be able to see a year from now, first of all, that there are no instances [of school violence] in Arkansas. That would be a real answer to prayer but also because of security initiatives," he said.

Marvin Burton, deputy superintendent of the Little Rock School District and a commission member, said the Little Rock district will fully review the recommendations.

"We'll exercise every means necessary to secure funding to help with retrofitting of buildings," he said. "We have some older facilities and we'll do what we need to do."

Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commissioner in the state Education Department, said the agency will review the plan and work with the governor's office in regard to the recommendations.

"Our role will be to provide support and service to the school districts in implementing the recommendations and doing what we can to keep students safe," Pfeffer said.

A Section on 12/04/2018