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Arkansas School Safety Commission adopts recommendations, but feasibility will take time

by Stephen Simpson | August 10, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission on Tuesday adopted several recommendations for its final report, but officials said it will take time to make sure the concepts are feasible for all of the state's school districts.

Members unanimously approved two recommendations from four of the subcommittees: mental health and prevention; law enforcement and security; audits, emergency operations plans and drills; and intelligence and communication. The physical securities subcommittee had four recommendations approved.

The recommendations include:

• The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Arkansas Center for School Safety should work in collaboration to develop and provide training to schools on analysis of data and creating action plans to effectively address needs related to school climate.

• Each campus should designate one current staff member as a school safety coordinator.

• School districts should develop layered, two-way communication access between staff members and administrative staff via various platforms to ensure information sharing and improve emergency alert processes.

• The legislature needs to modify Arkansas law to require all exterior doors and classroom doors be closed and locked during school hours.

• Require district campuses to use a visitor management system.

• District campuses have one secured visitor point of entrance with ideally a secured vestibule when allowable.

• At minimum install electronic access controls for high-frequency use exterior doors.

• Require school districts and first-responder agencies to conduct critical incident tabletop exercises every year.

• Recommend that districts employ a social media monitoring system for district devices used by students.

Other recommendations are expected to be discussed in future meetings.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key and Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, announced last week that a $50 million grant program will be used to address recommendations made by the Arkansas School Safety Commission.

Legislators are considering approval of the grant program as part of the current special session that is underway. Hutchinson said surplus state funds will be used to create the grant system and the General Assembly will set the parameters of the program.

The Republican governor said he hopes schools will use School Safety Commission recommendations when making requests for funding.

Hutchinson reinstated the School Safety Commission on June 10 in the aftermath of several mass shootings across the nation.

The state's original school safety commission, created in March 2018, submitted 30 recommendations in its 124-page report. Some schools have implemented portions of the original recommendations, but schools are not mandated to follow the recommendations.

Under the governor's executive order, the current commission is charged with reviewing the previous commission's report published in November 2018 and providing an update on the status of school safety across Arkansas.

PHYSICAL SECURITY

Tim Cain, director for the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation for the Arkansas Department of Education and head of the Physical Securities subcommittee, had multiple recommendations approved by the committee, but each required changes to wording because of concerns about their feasibility.

One discussed the need for legislators to modify Arkansas law to require all exterior doors and classroom doors be closed and locked during school hours. The recommendation was sent back to the subcommittee because of concerns expressed by several commissioners about its wording.

One of the sticking points was the definition of school hours, because campuses might have several after-school activities that require doors to remain open.

"I just know it will be tougher to police when it's something after school or an event going on," said Mike Hernandez, executive director for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. "It will be tougher to enforce [with] the more people who are on campus that are not school personnel."

John Allison, a teacher at Vilonia High School, said some campuses have multiple buildings where students have to go back and forth during school hours. Courtney Salas Ford, chief legal counsel for the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education for the Arkansas Department of Education, agreed and pointed out there are various campus setups across the state.

"It's hard to come up with language for all of those," she said.

May said it was the commission's job to tell school districts exactly what is expected.

"If we have wiggle room in this area, then are we doing what we are supposed to be doing?" she asked.

May suggested the recommendation be held until the wording can be worked out.

The other recommendation that required discussion involved campuses having one visitor point and vestibule if feasible. Cain said the reason subcommittee members added "if feasible" to the recommendation was because it might not be feasible for some campuses to have a vestibule because of the way the building is set up.

A.J. Gary, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, suggested taking the word "feasible" out of the recommendation.

"Almost sounds like we are saying if you can't afford it, then take your chances," he said. "Maybe if we took the word feasible out, then state legislators would have to get some money taken out for these type of projects."

David Hopkins, superintendent for the Clarksville School District, said at some schools the office is not close to the entrance of the school so having a vestibule built isn't an option.

"I got buildings where the office is in the middle of the school and there is no way to weave a vestibule there," he said.

The commission decided to remove the word "feasible" and discussed granting waivers to schools whose building architecture doesn't allow for a vestibule.

INTELLIGENCE AND COMMUNICATIONS

Chris Chapmond, chief of the Hot Spring Police Department and head of the communications subcommittee, stressed the importance of having multiple forms of communication between school staff and administrations.

He said layering communication can come in various forms.

"This can be via an alert system such as a mobile application, on top of an intercom or radio system," said Chapmond, who is also president of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police. "We are not recommending a particular type, just that there is multiple options."

Chapmond said the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 21 dead and 17 others wounded, showed that failure to have multiple communications options can have serious consequences.

"In Robb Elementary they had an alert system but due to lack of internet access in some parts of the building, some people didn't receive the message," he said. "They also had an intercom system failure, and they had a radio system but after the first message it's unclear how it was used.

"That is why it's important to have multiple ways to get that critical information out in a timely manner."

Chapmond told commission members the recommendation that school districts be able to monitor social media is important too.

"Potential suspects are talking about what they are doing and we are missing it," he said. "We believe this is a very solid recommendation."

Asked by commission members whether such monitoring would be limited only to school devices, such as their school computers, Chapmond said yes.

"The Little Rock School District did a presentation about their monitoring system," he said. "Simply by monitoring their school devices, they identified 77 events that required intervention. Constitutionally we can't monitor everything at every time, but being able to monitor what kids and staff have access to has been very fruitful."

Chapmond told commission members that part of the monitoring system used by the Little Rock School District keys in on specific subjects such as self-harm, depression, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, pornographic content, unhealthy relationships, threats of violence, bullying and cyber-bullying.

Subjects also can be added or removed as trigger words, he added.

"Those phrases can be changed as often as needed based on the slang changing over time," Chapmond said. "It can capture whatever you want for your particular school district. We know what is a triggering phrase in Jesseville might not be in Little Rock."

MENTAL HEALTH

Lori Poston, chair of the mental health and prevention subcommittee, stressed the importance of schools understanding how to analyze results of their school climate surveys and what to do with it.

School climate surveys are done to assess a district's strengths and vulnerabilities and to improve awareness of potential risk factors related to bullying or other issues that negatively impact school climate. Act 620 and Act 648 of 2021 mandate that school site safety assessments are conducted by districts every three years, with the first no later than August 2024.

Conducting climate surveys are now included as part of the comprehensive school safety assessment process.

"We want to make sure they know what to do with this climate information and have their action plan in place to see what is working and what is not," said Poston, vice president of clinical services for the Northeast Region for Arisa Health.

John Allison, a teacher at Vilonia High School, said he believes the recommendation is needed.

"I think a lot of districts do struggle when it comes to analysing data," he said.

AUDITS AND EMERGENCY OPERATIONS

A.J. Gary, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, said the subcommittee's recommendation that each campus has a safety coordinator will include that the coordinator take a course on basic incident command.

"We aren't trying to make emergency experts out of them," said Gary, head of the subcommittee. "We just want them to have the basic level of understanding."

May said the school safety coordinator would be responsible for maintaining a culture of school safety on campus and would report to the principal, but would not take the responsibility of maintaining campus safety away from the principal.

May also said the Criminal Justice Institute has been working on developing the curriculum for a School Safety Coordinator Academy that will be available in the fall. The curriculum would include topics such as emergency operations planning, school safety laws, incident command and best practices, compliance and accountability, and responsibilities and coordination with local law enforcement, county fire and emergency managers.


Print Headline: School safety panel backs changes, says time still needed

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