Law enforcement officers speak together outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, following a mass shooting that left 19 students and two adults dead. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
The Arkansas Department of Education has started reimbursing schools for safety improvement projects through a new school safety grant program.
To date, ADE has reimbursed $6.2 million for projects like the installation of blinds and shatter resistant film on windows to protect against active shooters.
Guy-Perkins School District superintendent Joe Fisher said the grant program provided structure for evaluating his district’s current safety measures and to develop needed improvements. Fisher said the state funds particularly benefit smaller districts like his, which had 308 students in 2023, according to ADE.
“These funds allowed us to be able to make the necessary updates to our building entrances, classroom doors, and emergency communication systems — projects that we would not have otherwise been able to do with just district funds,” he said.
The school safety grant program was created during a special legislative session a year ago when lawmakers set aside $50 million from the state’s $1.6 billion surplus.
Using a formula that considers a district’s 2021-2022 enrollment, ADE allotted grants ranging from $26,350 for the smallest district to $844,900 for the largest one. Guy-Perkins was allotted $82,150.
In a time of concern about mass shootings across the country, Fisher said student and staff safety “is the most important planning task” for the district, which works closely with its school resource officer and local chief of police to examine areas of weakness in security.
Guy-Perkins could use additional funding in the future to house a full-time SRO on campus, he said. The district currently shares one with the Mt. Vernon-Enola School District.
On the other end of the spectrum, Springdale School District, the state’s largest, has an armed presence in every building with a response time of less than a minute, Director of Student Services Damon Donnell said.
Donnell helped launch a biannual school safety summit in 2022 and has worked on implementing safety upgrades throughout the district. Some of Springdale’s safety measures include monthly safety walks in all 31 schools, an anonymous reporting system and the recent installation of 155 vape sensors that can also detect fights based on decibel levels.
While Springdale likely would have found ways to fund additional projects to protect its nearly 22,000 students, the $844,900 allotted through the school safety grant program allows the district to accomplish safety goals faster, Donnell said.
“We were already going down these roads, but this money allows us to make safety safer quicker because we’re able to now utilize the state funding for this instead of trying to figure out how we’re going to do this within the funding constraints that we already have in place,” he said.
ADE allotted $44 million of the $50 million that was set aside for the program for 45 private schools and 256 public districts that applied. Three charter schools didn’t have an allocation because they did not meet the minimum student enrollment of 51 or more students, ADE spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said.
“Towards the end of the grant process, we will assess the needs of the schools and decide how the remaining funds will be distributed,” Mundell said.
Springdale has spent approximately $41,000 so far and will submit a reimbursement request this week, Communications Director Trent Jones said. Districts must apply for reimbursement for their projects by Dec. 31.
Grant funding can be used to support projects listed by ADE in one of three priority tiers. All projects in the first tier must be completed before moving on to the next tier, Donnell said.
The listed projects came from recommendations made by the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which former Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstated in June 2022 following the deaths of 19 students and two teachers in a Uvalde, Texas, school shooting. The commission made 56 recommendations in a final report submitted to Hutchinson last October.
Springdale has already accomplished a majority of the projects outlined in the program, Donnell said. Projects the district plans to implement this fall include the installation of covers for vision panels on classroom doors, shatter resistant film on glass and physical barriers to prevent people from driving into a building.
Donnell said he’s also looking into a computer software system that integrates into a school’s existing camera system and alerts staff if it recognizes a weapon. This would have been helpful in 2018 when the Parkland High School gunman in Florida spent time preparing his rifle in a stairwell, Donnell said.
“We don’t want to be blind to innovation…we never want to be behind, we always want to be way out in front and really finding those technologies that are going to be best,” he said.
Beyond taking steps to improve physical safety, Donnell said one of the district’s biggest challenges moving forward will be breaking through the “snitches get stitches” mindset, and teaching students that it’s okay to say something if they see something concerning.
“You snitch to do the right thing, you are trying to have a safe environment at all times and trying to protect those that you care about,” Donnell said.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Arkansas’ deadliest school shooting. Two students at Jonesboro’s Westside Middle School killed four students and one teacher, and ten others were injured in the March 1998 shooting.
Since 1990, seven people have died and 17 others were injured in school shootings in Arkansas, according to Axios.
Nationwide there have been nearly 400 school shootings since April 20, 1999, when two teens killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, according to The Washington Post.
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