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Panel updated on safe schools in Arkansas; experts advise mental health training, building security

by Stephen Simpson | June 7, 2022 at 7:20 a.m.
Dr. Cheryl May, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, delivers a presentation about school safety during a meeting of the Joint Education Committee on Monday, June 6, 2022. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Bullet-resistant glass, more school resource officers and improved mental health assessments were all ideas presented to legislators during a meeting on school safety where several state leaders pointed out that many potential solutions are only going to increase the stress faced by educators.

Dr. Cheryl May, director for the Criminal Justice Institute; Courtney Salas Ford, chief legal counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education; and Nikki Edge, a professor in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, on Monday provided a school safety update to the Joint Committee on Education.

May gave legislators a list of 30 recommendations developed by the state Safe Schools Commission in 2018 and reviewed how well some school districts have implemented these ideas.

"We didn't just start working on school safety today," May said. "We have been working on it for a very long time and our schools have done an extraordinary job applying these recommendations."

From the outset of the meeting, lawmakers pointed out multiple times what they described as the "sad state of affairs" requiring a school safety review in the aftermath of mass shootings that included the the May 24 school shooting that left 19 children and two adults dead in Uvalde, Texas.

"This one of the saddest meetings I have ever sat in," said Republican state Sen. Colby Fulfer of Springdale. "To know that we are having to put this kind of effort in these reports. We are not even asking our teachers to just be educators. They have to be counselors, guardians, parents and even mind readers. I don't know how we got to this point in society."

Some of the recommendations developed by the Safe Schools Commission included the need for all school districts to provide access to training in Youth Mental Health First Aid, a program designed to help teachers deal with students facing a mental crisis; having school districts establish a behavioral threat assessment team; requiring school counselors to spend 90% of their time with students; requiring schools to have at least one SRO for each campus; conducting school safety assessments every three years; and training school nurses and staff to enhance the emergency medical response within schools.

May said that since 2018, the Arkansas Center for School Safety has trained 611 school resource officers and school counselors. She also said the state's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education's Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) has trained 2,500 educators, counselors and community members in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

Tricia Benish, director of mental health and behavior services for Greenbrier Public Schools, said her school district has focused on this training and over 390 staff members have been trained in mental health first aid.

"Not just teachers, but all of those who interact with students, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, librarians and others who could provide intervention for a student going through a mental health crisis," she said.

May said a 2019 grant allowed her office to create a Basic and Advanced Behavioral Threat Assessment training program. She said 10 Basic Behavioral Threat Assessment classes have been held with 76 school districts participating and one Advanced class was held with 13 school districts participating.

Edge also spoke about the Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools that will support schools in their efforts to prepare for, respond to and recover from traumatic events affecting members of the school community. The program provides live and online training, resources for school staff to prepare to respond to traumatic events, consultation to administrators and trauma-related care navigation.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, a former high school teacher, said she applauded educators taking all of these training classes but was concerned on how much was being put on them.

"It seems like a lot of things happening in the world are now being brought to our schools," said Elliott. "When are our teachers going to have time to teach?"

Elliott said schools are meant to be happy and joyful places, not fortresses.

"We are putting so much on our kids," she said.

Beyond training, May said there is also a physical safety component that needs to be considered.

"These should be high on the list of things that we look at as we learn more about what happened at Uvalde," she said.

These recommendations included controlling access to school buildings during school hours; requiring visitors to sign in or check in and wear badges; equipping classroom doors with locks so that they can be locked from the inside; ensuring that campuses have a single entry point for main campus buildings; installing bullet-resistant/anti-shatter glass and wall at reception desks and other security-related steps.

May was also vocal about the need for a statewide anonymous reporting system manned by trained mental health professionals to assist young people. Currently 45% of districts utilize an anonymous reporting system and 28% of districts have a behavioral threat assessment team, she said.

"There is no consistency in what we are doing right now," said May.

May also said school resource officers should not just be used as a law enforcement arm but, with proper training, urged to develop strong relationships with students, potentially becoming mentors and informal counselors.

"If they aren't used correctly they can also cause a world of damage," she said. "It's very important that we understand that any time discipline is used at a school that it shouldn't involve SROs."

May said 16 Arkansas school districts also have institutional law enforcement agencies whose officers have taken the same training as the school resource officers. She also said 98% of school districts have identified a school safety coordinator.

May told legislators that only a small percentage of districts around the state have school resource officers, a situation driven by tight school budgets.

Republican State Sen. Kim Hammer of Benton asked Mays why school shootings have become prevalent over the past several decades when it was not an issue when he was growing up.

"When I went to school and graduated it wasn't anything to have a pickup truck in the parking lot with a gun rack because of hunting," he said. "In your personal or professional opinion, what has changed?"

Mays said she didn't have the answer to that question.

"I can't wrap my head around it, Senator," she said. "There are a variety of different reasons, but I don't have the research background to adequately answer that question. I remember growing up and this was never an issue. We have a generation of kids now where school shootings is a reality for them. A key question we have to answer is why. Unfortunately I don't have that answer."

Print Headline: Panel updated on safe schools


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