The work of the new, 18-member Arkansas School Safety Commission -- appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson after the Parkland, Fla., school massacre -- is underway in its efforts to assess and make recommendations on schoolhouse safety measures.
The commission, which is to submit its preliminary report by July 1 and a final report by Nov. 1, is building on state laws and the work of the legislatively established, two-decades-old Safe Schools Committee. It's also building on the safety features already in place and being further enhanced by school districts.
"We are going to look at what is currently going on in the state, identify those gaps that exist, and then make recommendations on how to possibly fill those gaps or do other things that we think will ultimately make our schools safer," Cheryl May, director of the University of Arkansas System's Criminal Justice Institute and commission chairman, said at the inaugural meeting of the group of educators and law enforcement and mental health professionals.
The commission meeting took place on the day before hundreds of thousands of students from Hawaii to Maine, and including many in Arkansas, walked out of their schools Wednesday to honor those who died Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to protest against what some students and adults say has been a general inaction against gun violence in schools.
School districts aren't necessarily waiting on the state commission:
• The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, for example, is reconsidering the window plans and campus-access features of the elementary and high school buildings that are under construction.
• At the same time as the commission's meeting last week, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore announced preliminary plans to arm some of the district's campus security officers.
• The North Little Rock School Board voted Thursday night to increase its staff of five school resource officers and 30 campus security guards with 16 additional, part-time security guards, and to purchase additional walk-through and hand-held metal detectors.
• The Magnolia School Board last week approved the purchase of more than 200 cameras for placement at secondary-school campuses. The cameras are for indoor/outdoor use and include infrared capability and facial recognition software, the Magnolia Banner News reported.
The Magnolia district's plan has prompted objections from the American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas.
"All of us want schools to be safe, but subjecting students to an unproven, costly, and intrusive biometric surveillance system is not the answer," Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said in a statement Friday.
The School Safety Commission members have divided themselves into subcommittees, each with a particular focus, such as on the law and policies applicable to school safety and on communication of emergencies.
Another is focusing on collecting "intelligence" on potential threats to school safety.
One subcommittee will focus on safety and security audits, emergency operation plans, drills and responses.
Another group is studying building features that heighten security, including single points of entry, while still another subcommittee looks at mental health issues. Another is looking at a wide range of measures to prevent problems -- such as bullying, anger, drug use, gang affiliations or adverse childhood experiences -- that can translate into school violence.
Finally, there is a subcommittee that will focus on safety personnel, including school resource officers, who are armed police officers; commissioned school security officers, who may be school district employees who are not law enforcement officers but can carry weapons on campuses; and auxiliary officers and deputies.
In forming the commission, Hutchinson pledged $300,000 from state discretionary funding toward training armed school resource officers and developing safety plans. There are 316 school resource officers who patrol about one-third of the schools in the state, Hutchinson has said.
"Probably the majority of the calls [from the public] have focused around this -- law enforcement and security and the various strategies we use around the state," May said.
President Donald Trump has indicated that his plans to defend against school shootings will include -- among other measures -- helping states pay for the training of qualified school personnel to use firearms. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is heading a federal commission on school safety.
At their initial meeting, the Arkansas School Safety Commission members did not delve into the pros and cons of arming school personnel.
But commission member and Clarksville School District Superintendent David Hopkins, whose district has armed some its staff members with pistols, offered to make his staff available to present to the group on the initiative.
As many as 13 of Arkansas' 238 traditional school districts have similarly armed staff, which is allowed by Act 393 of 2015 -- if those staff members have 60 hours of initial training, ongoing education, and certification renewals every other year.
Members of the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense attended a portion of the School Safety Commission meeting in hopes of addressing the commission members.
Laura Hardy, a former high school teacher and member of the organization, said at a break in the meeting that she would not have continued to work if she were required to carry a gun.
"A lot of friends who teach feel the same way, and I know young parents who will pull their children out of schools. It's not a good thing on multiple levels," she said, adding that many of her teenage students were bigger than her and that she would have to think about them taking a gun away from her.
Donna Drury, another retired teacher, agreed with Hardy in opposition to arming teachers. She did applaud the commission's interest in delving into mental health, anti-bullying and suicide-prevention efforts.
That is likely to be one of several presentations by organizations and individuals who have programs or services intended to positively affect student and faculty safety.
Commission member Lori Poston of Jonesboro, a child and adolescent therapist, said during the meeting that it will be important for the commission's recommendations and plans to take into account what is and might be required of teachers.
"Their plates are kind of full already," she said, urging that any training resulting from the commission's work be clear and empowering for teachers.
"They are the ones who identify the problems with the kids. They are the ones who communicate with parents who often won't communicate back," she said. "I worry about teachers in this whole process. They are the ones who carry the brunt of it."
The commission members agreed that they will hold at least one meeting devoted to public comment but will ask potential speakers to give notice of their comments several days in advance.
They also expressed interest in conducting a school climate survey, listening to students about their concerns and ideas, and meeting with people who were associated with the Westside School District near Jonesboro in 1998 when two students fatally shot four students and a teacher and injured 10 others.
School visits are also being planned by the commission members, who intend to first draw up a checklist of what they want to learn from each of those campuses.
Besides May, Hopkins and Poston, commission members include Vice Chairman Bill Temple, a retired FBI special agent; John "Don" Kaminar, special projects and school safety manager for the Arkansas Department of Education; Brad Montgomery, director of the state Department of Education's division of public school academic facilities; A.J. Gary, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management; Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder; and Jami Cook, director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy.
Other members of the commission are Will Jones, deputy attorney general; Dawn Anderson, a Hot Springs High School counselor; John Allison, a Vilonia High School teacher; Tom Jenkins, chief of the Rogers Fire Department; and Marvin L. Burton, deputy superintendent for the Little Rock School District.
Additional members are Dr. Margaret Weiss, a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the director of child and adolescent psychiatry; Ricky Hopkins, parent of a student in the Prescott School District; Dr. Sterling Claypoole, professor of psychology at South Arkansas Community College and the parent of students in the El Dorado School District; and Joyce Cottoms, superintendent of the Marvell-Elaine School District.
The commission is tentatively scheduled to meet again April 4 and April 17.
A Section on 03/19/2018
Print Headline: Analysis of school security kicks off