Courtney Salas-Ford, Arkansas Department of Education chief counsel, discusses emergency school safety rules with lawmakers on Dec. 15, 2022. (Screengrab from live stream)
The Arkansas Legislative Council’s executive subcommittee on Thursday approved emergency rules that will allow the disbursement of $50 million for a school-safety grant program.
“If we can get these approved, then that will assist us in getting the money out to school districts sooner so that they can start putting these different safety measures in place,” Arkansas Department of Education chief counsel Courtney Salas-Ford said.
Legislators set aside $50 million for a school-safety grant program during August’s special session. The funds, which come from a $1.6 billion surplus the state ended with in fiscal 2022, were appropriated to the Department of Education for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023.
Act 3 of the special session moved $50 million from the state’s reserve fund into a “School Safety Set-Aside” fund to await the School Safety Commission’s final recommendations and the Department of Education’s proposed rules for implementing the grant program.
School Safety Commission
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 2022 commission made 56 new recommendations to improve school safety in its final report, which was released in October.
Recommendations included conducting routine and unannounced safety checks, providing local law enforcement with master key access and developing a statewide school safety tip line.
Rep. Jeff Wardlaw (R-Hermitage) questioned if $50 million is a sufficient amount to address school safety concerns across the state.
It would be up to the Legislature to make more funds available, Salas-Ford said. There are also federal funds she said the department is looking at making available. At minimum, Salas-Ford said she hopes the initial funding is enough to get all districts to adopt “basic safety measures that we think all students and staff are entitled to.”
“To say that it will meet all of school safety needs, I don’t know that we could ever come up with a number that would fully ensure every student was 100% safe,” she said. “But we feel this is at least a good effort in getting to an equal level for all of our school districts.”
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School districts will request funds through an application process. Funding will be available to schools with at least 50 students and the amount will be based in part on student enrollment. Districts will also be able to seek reimbursement for safety improvements they have implemented prior to Dec. 1.
Eligible expenses include the purchase of materials, equipment or services to meet the School Safety Commission’s recommendations. Officials will prioritize all recommendations that should be completed by school districts.
Under the emergency rules, the superintendent must provide written assurance that higher priority recommendations are complete, or in the process of being complete, before receiving funds for other recommendations or safety measures not specified by the commission.
In addition to approving a funding mechanism for the school-safety grant program, the emergency rules include additional requirements for districts including:
- School districts must conduct a comprehensive safety assessment every three years in collaboration with local law enforcement, fire and emergency management officials
- The initial comprehensive school safety assessment must be conducted by Aug. 1, 2024
- School boards that accept a school resource officer must enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the local law enforcement agency
- Principals made aware of someone who has committed or threatened to commit an act of violence must immediately report the incident or threat to the superintendent and local law enforcement
The subcommittee reviewed and approved the rules, which will go into effect following the adjournment of ALC’s meeting Friday, Dec. 16.
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