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story.lead_photo.caption Cheryl May, chairman of the Arkansas School Safety Commission, asks questions during Thursday’s commission meeting at the Criminal Justice Institute building in Little Rock. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

The Arkansas School Safety Commission on Thursday expanded its list of goals and strategies for improving security of students and staff members to include suggestions related to mental-health services and to school building features.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the 18-member commission of law enforcement officers, educators and mental-health providers in March to submit a preliminary report to him by July 1 and a final version by Nov. 30 that identifies gaps in school safety and suggests options for addressing them.

Strategies accepted by the commission Thursday from its subcommittees for inclusion in that first report are in addition to suggestions adopted earlier this month for armed school security, development of school safety committees and safety plans, the conducting of school safety assessments, and employment of training and drills to practice responses to threats.

The commission on Thursday accepted proposals for schools to establish a proven system of evaluating threats to students -- which often start or spread on social media -- to determine their validity, and to report those found to be serious.

School districts also should put into operation an effective anti-bullying program, conduct school climate surveys to identify problems and needs, partner with the Arkansas Department of Education to ensure student access to mental health services, expand training to employees in Mental Health First Aid and, in general, make easily accessible a "toolbox" of resources for schools to use to address different needs that arise.

A.J. Gary, director of the state Department of Emergency Management and a commission member, called the mental-health section "as probably the most important part" of the commission's report.

"We really need to look deep into changing that school culture and into these programs that can do that," Gary told his commission colleagues.

He noted that in the past two decades most of the shootings at schools were done by students from those schools.

"If we can make an impact on the school culture through these programs, we can certainly reduce the possibility of a school shooting," Gary said.

Hutchinson appointed the commission after the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and adults at a Parkland, Fla., high school. Since then, there have been additional shootings at school campuses in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 were killed, and in Noblesville, Ind., where two were shot. In each case the shooter was a student or former student at the campus.

In the 2017-18 school year, 35 people died at the hands of campus shooters, Education Week, a national newspaper on elementary and secondary education, has reported.

Lori Poston, a licensed social worker/therapist in Jonesboro and chairman of the commission's mental-health subcommittee, said that while there are readily available school climate surveys and threat evaluation systems for schools, she is unaware of any free anti-bullying school curricula that is proved to work.

She cited a 2015 report indicating that out of 36 states, Arkansas ranked the worst for instances of bullying among school-age children, resulting in a fear of going to school. Asked why the high rate, Poston said it is her opinion that bullying at school stems from home life and from a tendency by schools to discipline victims of bullying who retaliate but fail to punish the longtime instigators.

"I've seen it repeatedly," Poston said.

Arkansas requires its public school systems to adopt a policy on anti-bullying but stops short of requiring the implementation of any anti-bullying program, Arkansas Department of Education attorney Courtney Salas-Ford told the commission.

As for providing access to mental health providers, some schools have easy access, while other schools -- those in largely rural areas -- are unable to persuade needed providers to travel to their campuses when they are not compensated for that travel time. Another barrier, Poston said, is that private insurance doesn't typically pay for mental-health services provided to a Medicaid-ineligible student at a school.

Commission member Dawn Anderson, a counselor at Hot Springs High School, noted that the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support program that is used in some school systems -- such as Watson Chapel and Little Rock -- goes beyond anti-bullying to promote relationship building among students and staff members. She said she wished there were more program options in that regard.

Commission member David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville School District, as well as other commission members, said that in many districts the school counselors have so many duties -- including coordinating standardized testing -- that they can't effectively provide social and emotional support to students.

The commission also reviewed proposals for improving safety through features incorporated into new school buildings or by retrofitting existing buildings.

The projects -- which could become eligible for state financial assistance -- call for secure school entryways or vestibules that restrict easy entry into the main school, and use of bullet-resistant glass and film, as well as limited use of large glass panels.

Other suggestions included classroom doors that lock from the inside without keys and use of high-tech systems, including video surveillance of entryways and gunshot detection or active-shooter alarms.

"What is best for security and what is best for education is not always the same," Hopkins said about eliminating glass panels that allow administrators to look into classrooms.

The building-related proposals, introduced Thursday by Brad Montgomery, director of the state's Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Division, will now be referred to the state's Advisory Committee for Public School Academic Facilities for further development.

Commission members revisited proposals made earlier for defending schools from shooters. The commission plans to recommend to the governor the different options to be available to schools -- school resource officers who are armed police officers, commissioned school-safety officers who are school employees who volunteer to undergo training to be able to use a firearm in the event of a gunman, employment of retired police officers as substitute teachers and/or assignment by police and sheriff's offices of auxiliary officers to schools. Auxiliary officers are unpaid retired lawmen.

Hopkins, the Clarksville superintendent, said that a rapid response is needed in the event a gunman opens fire and that is best done with "a saturation" of able responders.

Kate Fletcher, an Arkansas-chapter spokesman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said at a break in the meeting that she was concerned about "the use of the word saturation to describe the number of guns we want on our campuses.

"The presence of more guns doesn't make us safer. It makes us more vulnerable," said Fletcher, who described herself as a gun owner and advocate for gun safety.

"The idea that we could expect our teachers who already have been charged with the difficult, full-time job of loving, caring for and educating our students to also be expected to respond to such a crisis with a steady hand and a clear mind is frankly laughable," she said.

Fletcher said the commission should use its influence to advocate for gun-safety legislation that could reduce gun violence at schools.

"Anything short of using their influence for that is quite frankly a failure of the commission," Fletcher said.

Metro on 06/22/2018

Print Headline: School-safety goals expanded; Mental-health aid, securing buildings among panel’s ideas

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