School safety panel proposes hardening schools, improving mental health response

Commission aims to present final recommendations in October

By: - August 17, 2022 12:09 am

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder (Photo by Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas School Safety Commission adopted a dozen recommendations Tuesday aimed at hardening schools against intrusion and making sure staff and teachers are trained to respond not only to physical threats but also to students in mental distress.

Commissioners voted to recommend that school campuses “should always have armed personnel when staff and students are on campus” so that they “never have a lapse in armed security.”

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, the commission member who presented the proposal, noted that best practice is to have more than one trained armed official on campus at all times. These can be traditional school resource officers or certified school security officers, usually a teacher, coach or other education professional.

Commission chair Cheryl May noted that the recommendation addresses the issue of providing backup when a school resource officer has to leave the campus for whatever reason.

The commission also approved recommendations that:

  • Schools be required to install security cameras at exits and inside buildings that would be used only in the event of an intrusion to enable responding law enforcement officers to act more effectively.
  • All exterior doors and classroom doors be closed and locked during school hours “except during transition periods” between classes and as the school day ends. The recommendation to keep exterior doors closed and locked would require a change in a state law requiring doors to remain unlocked to comply with fire code, member David Hopkins said.

David Hopkins, Clarksville schools superintendent
David Hopkins, Clarksville schools superintendent (Photo by Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

The recommendation specifically notes that the proposed closed-and-locked rule “cannot impede egress” to comply with fire safety and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, said Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville School District. That would need legislative action to change the language of existing law, Arkansas Code Annotated 12-13-109.

The commission plans to present its final recommendations to Gov. Asa Hutchinson in October. Hutchinson reactivated the 24-member commission in June after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that killed 21 children and educators. He directed the commission to review its recommendations from a 2018 report and update them or propose new ones.

The commission issued a preliminary report on Aug. 2. The recommendations adopted Tuesday will be included in its final report.

The state Legislature last week set aside $50 million for school safety improvement from the state’s $1.6 billion revenue surplus. Rules for how that money will be distributed are expected to be promulgated once the commission’s final report is issued.

The commission’s Intelligence and Communication subcommittee recommended that law enforcement agencies be encouraged to develop programs that would improve reporting of possible “bad actors” or troubled students by school officials and others.

“We can’t leave this entirely up to school districts. There has to be a law enforcement component,” said commissioner Chris Chapmond, Hot Springs police chief and president of the Arkansas Association of Police Chiefs.

“We know the actors are talking about it, broadcasting it [on social media], so we need to encourage reporting,” he said.

Another law enforcement-related recommendation approved by the commission would recognize the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERT) program as the standard “active threat training” for all law enforcement personnel and certified school security officers.

“Arkansas has more than 400 certified ALERT trainers” available to meet the training need, Helder said. The training is funded by U.S. Department of Justice grants.

The commission tabled for further discussion a recommendation to require everyone who uses a school-provided digital device to receive cybersecurity training so that subcommittee members can determine how often the training should be conducted.

Other recommendations adopted by the commission dealt with mental health awareness and mental health first-aid training. One would require all school staff who regularly interact with students to take a minimum of one hour of available online training in mental health awareness if they haven’t been certified in youth mental health first aid.

Another recommendation suggests that all school districts create a behavioral threat assessment team and provide those teams training through the Arkansas Center for School Safety. A second recommendation dealing with behavioral threat assessment teams would require school districts that have anonymous reporting systems to establish such teams.

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his nearly 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

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