In line with current discussions around school safety, Governor Hutchinson of Arkansas formed a state-specific Arkansas School Safety Commission to make recommendations concerning the safety of Arkansas schools. At that time, Governor Hutchinson also earmarked $300,000 to the Criminal Justice Institute to train school resource officers and to support districts in developing school safety plans.
Governor Hutchinson formed the Arkansas School Safety Commission in March after the Parkland mass shooting, and the commission filed its first report on July 3rd, 2018 making 19 preliminary best-practices safety recommendations to the governor. Their final report is due November 30th, 2018.
A review of the commission’s webpage on the Arkansas Department of Education website indicates that the eighteen committee members met face-to-face three times in the intervening months as a full body with their preliminary report indicating the commission and its five subcommittees met a total of nine times.
The nineteen committee recommendations included in the preliminary report (linked here) focus on mental health resources for students, anti-bullying programs, changes to school infrastructure, and mandatory school safety assessments. The commission specifically called for an increased presence of school resource officers and increased armed presence on school campuses, and language in the document points at strategies that can be used to “harden” schools against potential threats. In commenting on the preliminary recommendations, Hutchinson commented that while teachers would not be required to carry guns, he emphasized that each school needs at least one armed person on staff and stated, “no school should be without armed officers when staff or children are there.”
It should be noted that the commission includes one superintendent notable in the state as the first Arkansas school superintendent to arm teachers starting in 2013. Indeed, one recommendation in the report is to follow the example of the district this superintendent still oversees as a model for other districts. Other commission members include the director of the Criminal Justice Institute, a retired FBI agent, a county sheriff, director of the Arkansas law enforcement training academy, one high school counselor, and one teacher.
Other notable recommendations in the preliminary report include a call for improving student access to mental health services and redefining the role of school counselors to spend more time interacting with students instead of overseeing testing and other administrative responsibilities (e.g., scheduling). While state law requires counselors to spend at least 75% of their time providing direct counseling to students, Hutchinson asserted that this law was not being followed.
Governor Hutchinson endorsed all recommendations and noted that many will not require additional funding to fulfill; although, he noted that the cost of hiring school resource officers or training school safety coordinators will be borne by the district and/or local law enforcement. Hutchinson also noted that school districts might also face additional costs associated with providing additional mental health services for students. The governor stated that “some of the poorer” districts without funds to support these recommendations could consider commissioning voluntary school security officers from existing school personnel to go through training to carry firearms.
Response from the state has ranged from support of the recommendations to criticisms calling for a range of additional supports to increase school safety. Advocates in the state are requesting “red flag laws” that allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from persons deemed “dangerous.” Other voices in the state have expressed concern that teachers may be asked by their district to carry firearms although they are already seen as underpaid and overworked.