The Arkansas School Safety Commission on Friday completed the drafting of recommendations for a final report to the governor on ways to prevent school-related violence, as well as defend against it and recover from it if it happens.
"This is going to be a report that's going to have a big impact," commission Chairman Cheryl May, director of the University of Arkansas' Criminal Justice Institute, said of the document that is due to Gov. Asa Hutchinson by Nov. 30. "This is something that can really, really help make a difference.'
The final report, which builds on a preliminary report sent to Hutchinson in July, will include provisions and supporting information on mental health programs, employment of law enforcement and security officers, emergency planning, communication systems and school building security.
The commission's recommendations are the result of numerous presentations from experts and others interested in school safety, a survey of district superintendents and visits to a dozen schools in all parts of the state.
Hutchinson established the 18-member commission of educators, law enforcement agents and mental-health professionals in March to make recommendations on improving school security. He did that in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and employees by an intruder at a Parkland, Fla., high school.
School building and and school bus security measures -- and potential revenue sources for them -- were a focus at Friday's daylong commission meeting.
The commission voted unanimously to recommend:
• Revising the state's Academic Facilities Partnership Program to enable school districts to apply and receive state financial aid to help pay for safety features -- such as fully enclosed walkways between buildings, ballistic-rated glass and video surveillance equipment -- not currently eligible for that state funding.
• Developing on the state level for school district use a customized school bus safety initiative. That would be done with assistance from the federal Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Center Training Assistance that is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Education.
• Appealing to the state's congressional delegation and other federal partners for help in continuing and expanding the federal Title IV grants to districts, and allowing that grant money to be used to pay for building security features.
• Updating and adding to school and district online profiles -- including building layouts and locations of doors and windows -- for use by emergency responders in the case of problems at schools.
• Notifying the Arkansas Division for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation in advance about any plans for installing temporary barricade devices that are meant to prevent intruders from entering a classroom but also have the potential to hinder entry into a space by emergency responders or diminish the fire code rating for doors.
• Replacing old-style "crashbars" on school doors going to the outdoors with newer exit devices.
• Revising the Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities Manual to provide specific safety and security options for school systems to consider in the design and construction of new academic spaces.
Brad Montgomery, a School Safety Commission member and the director of the state Division for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, offered the different proposals for the commission's approval.
His presentation to the commission included photographs of chain-locked or otherwise barred school doors from around the state that prevent the egress of students and school staff in the event of a fire or other emergency in which evacuation is warranted. Currently, his division inspectors won't leave a school where those locks are in place until they are unlocked by the custodians or school principals who have the keys, he said. That is followed up by division staff with a call to a local fire marshal.
"It's not an appropriate method because it blocks egress completely," Montgomery said, referring to chains and other impediments. "Our division has long wanted a solution to this problem," he said, adding that efforts to improve school security will be able to help with that.
As for the possibility of federal Title IV grants, Montgomery said that the funding was about to be eliminated until the school shootings happened earlier this year in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. Arkansas received about $4 million in funding last year, he said, which has been increased to $11 million this year and made available for physical security equipment purchases. He said he'd like to see the funding continue.
Earlier Friday, Arkansas State Police Maj. Lindsey Williams, the state's fire marshal, addressed the commission about the dangers of certain barricades and locking devices, some very rudimentary, that can be used to block a dangerous intruder from entry into a school classroom but also prevent emergency responders from getting to an emergency -- such as a hostage situation -- in a classroom.
There are deadbolt/lever handle door locks in which outside access into a classroom locked from the inside is possible, he said. The average cost for that kind of lock is about $300 a door, he said.
One of the commission's recommendations is that school systems revise their fire alarm response policies to allow school staff a short time to assess the reason for an alarm before directing students to evacuate a classroom. Commission members said earlier this week that some local fire marshals object to the delay.
Williams said Friday that he believes a majority of fire marshals and chiefs would be supportive of the proposal and that most concerns could be addressed through dialogue and education.
May, chairman of the safety commission, highlighted part of the report draft that notes that each of Arkansas' more than 1,000 school campuses is unique and that safety measures that are appropriate for some will not be appropriate for others. She also said that the school shooting deaths that have occurred nationally are evidence that views on school safety must go beyond monthly fire drills and surface material under a swing set.
The commission's most publicized recommendation, dating back to the preliminary report in July, is that no campus should be without an armed presence when staff and children are attending class or a major extracurricular activity.
"I know this is a lightning rod," Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder told the commission about the proposal that was among the many proposals formally approved Friday for the final report.
Metro on 11/10/2018
Print Headline: Arkansas safety panel drafts plans to prevent, respond to school-related violence