Police & Fire

School Safety panel’s final report includes more than 50 new recommendations

By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate

The Arkansas School Safety Commission made 56 new recommendations to improve school safety in its final report, obtained Wednesday by the Advocate

The 24-member panel lists suggestions for best practices in a variety of areas, including physical security, cybersecurity, emergency preparation, communication and mental health services. 

 Chair Cheryl May and Gov. Asa Hutchinson discuss the reinstatement of the Arkansas School Safety Commission during a press conference on June 2. | Screenshot of livestream

The report cements a recommendation approved by the commission that campuses should have a constant armed presence anytime staff and children are attending class or during major extracurricular activities.

It also recommends a change to state law to allow schools to keep exterior doors closed and locked during school.

Some of the other main recommendations discussed and recommended by the commission include: 

  • Every district should provide master key(s) access to local law enforcement for use during a critical incident.
  • Establish a basic statewide school information sharing program for cybersecurity incidents and threats.
  • Schools should conduct routine and unannounced safety checks, at least monthly, to evaluate safety and security policies and procedures.
  • The Arkansas Center for School Safety should coordinate a planning group to focus on the development and implementation of a statewide school safety tip line.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstated the Arkansas School Safety Commission in June following the deaths of 19 students and two teachers in a Uvalde, Texas, school shooting. It was the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history.

Hutchinson first created the commission in 2018. The group submitted 30 recommendations in its original 134-page report. The governor tasked the reinstated commission with identifying new recommendations.

The 2018 commission had 18 members, including 11 who also served on the 2022 committee. Cheryl May, director of the University of Arkansas System Criminal Justice Institute, chaired both groups.

In a letter to the Arkansas General Assembly Wednesday with the commission’s report, the Republican governor said it’s important to note that while the panel’s findings are recommendations, not requirements, districts are working to implement as many measures as possible.

“With approval from the Arkansas Legislature, I have allocated $50 million in state grants to serve as a source for funding for the commission’s suggestions, which includes updated technology, expanded staff and protective infrastructure,” Hutchinson wrote.

“School districts are also encouraged to apply for federal grant funding through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to defray costs.”

During a special session in August, lawmakers set aside $50 million for a school-safety grant program. The funds come from the state’s $1.6 billion surplus.

Act 3 of the special session moved $50 million from the state’s reserve fund into a “School Safety Set-Aside” fund as lawmakers awaited the School Safety Commission’s final recommendations and the Department of Education’s proposed rules for implementing the grant program. 

The Arkansas Legislative Council will approve rules drafted by the education department. The council’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 21; no agenda has yet been made public. 

In his letter to lawmakers, Hutchinson said some recommendations would require further support from the Legislature. While the $50 million in state grant money will support school safety improvements, recurring funding is also necessary.

Additionally, legislators would have to change a state law that requires all doors and exits to remain unlocked during school hours to meet the recommendation by the commission to “keep all exiting doors and classroom doors closed and locked during school hours, with the exception of transition times” to improve safety. 

“Your support is necessary to making this change,” Hutchinson wrote.

During the commission’s final meeting Sept. 27, Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, a two-time commission member, voiced concerns about how to encourage more involvement from districts in the panel’s new recommendations.

Citing a survey about the 2018 recommendations, Helder said there’s not been full implementation of those suggestions due to issues like lack of funding, feasibility and lack of support at the local district level.

For example, the original commission recommended that all districts should establish a behavioral threat assessment team and require all team members to receive training through the Arkansas Center for School Safety.

However, only 28% of school districts indicated having formed the teams in 2019. Of those with a team, 66% indicated all team members completed training in at least behavioral threat assessment.

The full 205-page report is available below and includes an examination of the implementation of the 2018 recommendations as well as a list of the 2022 recommendations.

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