Arkansas School Safety Commission begins work following Uvalde shooting

The Arkansas School Safety Commission reconvened Tuesday, June 14, after being called to action by Governor Asa Hutchinson following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The group was instructed to report by Oct. 1 to the governor with further recommendations.

The group’s chair, Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, assigned members to five subcommittees that were part of the original commission. Hutchinson formed this commission in 2018 following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Many of the members of that original commission are part of the current commission.

Hutchinson reconvened the commission by executive order on June 10. He asked members to review the final report released in November 2018, determine which recommendations have not been met, and identify new best practices that have developed since his first report.

The commission’s initial report is expected on August 1 and the final report on October 1. With such a tight schedule, the subcommittees will begin meeting this week to prepare recommendations. These sub-committees are Mental Health and Prevention; law enforcement and security; audits, contingency plans and exercises; information and communication; and physical security.

Members of the commission include, among others, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge; Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators; and Linda Speer Graham, director of mental health and crisis services at Nettleton Public Schools. Speer noted while introducing himself that his superintendent, Dr. Karen Curtner, was the principal of Westside Middle School in Jonesboro when two students killed four students and a teacher there in 1998.

Another commission member, Bill Hollenbeck, chief of the Fort Smith Public Schools Police Department, said his district recently completed $15.1 million in school safety upgrades.

May said commission members previously agreed he would recommend a comprehensive security strategy focused on prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. May reviewed what happened with most of the 30 recommendations made by the commission in 2018. She said just over 60% of school respondents had a specific program in place after the commission recommended that all schools create a positive climate that discourages bullying behavior. .

The commission in 2018 had recommended that no campus be without an armed presence. May said 84% of districts have one. Seventy-five percent of districts in 2019 employed at least one school resource officer, while 20% employed commissioned school security officers, who can be private security guards or school staff who must complete 60 hours of training to carry a gun. Arkansas now has 460 school resource officers employed by 223 districts, and 20% of districts in the state now have a school resource officer on every campus.

May said a recommendation that all districts should provide mental health first aid training for youth was followed by legislation requiring school counselors and school resource officers to receive the training every four years. . She said the Arkansas Center for School Safety has trained more than 650 school resource officers as well as school counselors and staff. Additionally, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Arkansas AWARE Project has trained 2,500 educators, counselors and community members in youth mental health first aid.

May said 98% of school districts in the state have designated a staff member as a school safety coordinator, which was another of the commission’s recommendations in 2018. Following a recommendation that nurses and staff need to be trained in emergency response, the Criminal Justice Institute trained 715 school nurses to administer the opioid rescue medication naloxone.

Following a recommendation that school districts implement strategies to promote the reporting of suspicious behavior and threats, May said 45% of school districts have an anonymous reporting system. However, only 28% have a behavioral threat assessment team, and not all are trained. Unlike many states, Arkansas does not have a statewide anonymous reporting system.

May referenced two Secret Service studies, including one published in 2019, which researched 41 incidents of targeted school violence between January 2008 and December 2017. That report found 34 were male and seven were female, but it there was no profile for a student. the attacker or a profile of the type of school attacked. Many were driven by grievances. (Link here for the PDF of this report.)

A 2021 study by the Secret Service looked for 67 conspiracies that were prevented between 2006 and 2018. It found that targeted school violence could be prevented when communities intervened after identifying warning signs. (Link here for the PDF of this report.)

Aurora J. William