The Arkansas School Safety Commission’s final report is due in just over two weeks, and members are trying to balance funding and accountability when it comes to safety recommendations for schools.
Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute and head of the commission, said lawmakers were interested in the commission’s recommendations.
“We are considering a recommendation to provide continued funding to schools specifically for school safety,” she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Friday. “I don’t know if this recommendation will be discussed at our next or last committee meeting.”
The commission unanimously approved on Tuesday another set of recommendations from its five subcommittees: mental health and prevention; law enforcement and security; audits, contingency plans and exercises; physical security; and intelligence and communication.
• School resource officers having instant access to certain equipment in an active killer situation. The recommendation states that a go-bag should at a minimum include a body armor, ballistic helmet, forcible entry tools, medical first aid and trauma kits. A commissioned school safety officer should also receive proper instruction on the use of all items listed.
• Schools should develop strategies that overlap and create redundancy for optimal safety. These may include hiring ex-law enforcement officers certified as auxiliary officers or commissioned school security officers, as well as providing space for local law enforcement to conduct a work on campus, which would allow multiple officers to be on campus at any one time.
• Law enforcement should coordinate with school districts to allow limited access to law enforcement communications networks (radio systems) during a critical incident.
• District campuses should have shatterproof film at school entrances, especially at the main entrance.
• District campuses should have physical barriers such as bollards, landscaping, fencing, walls, and more at school entrances, especially at the main entrance.
Additional recommendations are expected at future meetings. The commission’s final report is expected on October 1.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstated the School Safety Commission in June following several mass shootings across the country and said he hoped school districts would use the updated recommendations when applying for funding. Lawmakers approved a $50 million grant package in a special session in August that will be used to address recommendations made by the commission.
The state’s original School Safety Commission, established in March 2018, submitted 30 recommendations in its 124-page report. Some schools have implemented parts of the original recommendations, but schools are not required to follow the recommendations.
Under the governor’s executive order, the current commission is tasked with reviewing the previous commission’s report and providing an update on the state of school safety in Arkansas.
With the commission’s deadline approaching, May said it was time to discuss how schools could fund these recommendations.
“Schools that responded to the survey we sent out were given the opportunity to submit an open-ended question, and I’m not kidding when I say 90% of the responses included something about funding,” she told the committee last week. “Not every school district submitted an open statement, but the funding was just boom, boom, boom. It was like a flashing light.”
May told the committee that since funding doesn’t fit any of the subcommittee’s topics, it might be best if the members as a whole came up with an idea for providing resources.
“The governor is making the $50 million available for roughly one-time projects related to school safety,” she said. “If you look at some of these things that we’re asking them to do, they’re ongoing amounts and not one time.”
David Hopkins, Clarksville School District superintendent and board member, agreed it was time to get the funding sorted.
“We absolutely need some sort of mechanism in place, I believe, to continually provide schools with the funds they need to implement these recommendations which are not a one-time expense,” he said. “Like school resource officers, commissioned security guards and things of that nature that require ongoing costs year after year.”
Fort Smith Public Schools Police Chief Bill Hollenbeck agreed.
“Our whole mission is to help our schools succeed in protecting our students and providing a safe and secure learning environment, but if we don’t address funding, we don’t address the general issue of helping our schools to succeed,” he said. said. “We almost put unfunded recommendations in front of these schools.”
Hopkins said he hopes when Hutchinson and lawmakers review the recommendations, they understand they can’t be pulled from nowhere.
“When we ask for additional SROs and CSSOs, even if we don’t pay a salary, there are training costs and licensing costs that need to be taken into account before legislators impose something,” said he declared.
May said the biggest expense will be upgrading the physical security of facilities, but noted that the $50 million grant and federal grants could help with that.
“Each subcommittee has come up with all of these free resources for schools to use,” she said. “It’s not like we’re asking them, other than the physical titles part, to do things that are very expensive.”
Tim Cain, director of the Arkansas Department of Education’s Public Schools Facilities and Transportation Division, said most physical recommendations will be considered when building a new school.
“Over time, new schools will be built, and these will have to meet the new safety standards of the safety manual we adopted three years ago,” Cain said. “Every new school will have these things that we’re talking about because it will be mandatory. Over time, schools will be physically safer just by design.”
May said Friday that when it comes to changes to the physical building, the only recommendations that require it are vestibules for entrances, bollards and other physical barriers.
“The vestibule can be a heavy load depending on the age of the building and its layout, but there are facility grants available to help, as well as federal funding,” she said. “There are other recommendations around door locks and door access controls that the $50 million grants can most certainly help cover.”
Cain said there is also funding available through the state partnership program for facility security projects, including secure vestibules.
“Partnership funding requires correspondence from the school district,” he said. “The amount of district matching depends on the district’s Wealth Index. The next deadline for districts to apply for partnership funding is March 1, 2024.”
May said 233 of 261 school districts already have at least one school resource officer on campus.
“The Office of Community Based Policing has a hiring grant program that provides funding for hiring SROs,” she said. “The amount of funding for the COPS Hiring Program has increased.”
May said the biggest issue with school resource officers may be availability.
“There are huge shortages in law enforcement across the state and serious recruitment and retention issues,” she said. “A police officer’s or deputy’s salary falls far short of compensating them for the real risks they take every day for the community.”
The cost of commissioned school safety officers can also vary from district to district.
May suggested using the matrix system that provides funding to schools based on student population as a possible way to fund recommendations.
“We have small, poor schools that don’t have an SRO or FSCO program because they can’t afford it,” she said. “It would be nice if there was a way to have a minimum amount of money given to schools for school security to help poorer and smaller schools get the resources we think are important.”
Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder asked if the recommendations would instead become mandates if lawmakers approved such funding.
“We don’t mandate at our level, but someone should mandate all the recommendations that come out if they want to fund it,” he said. “Otherwise, if they increase the matrix, how are we going to determine if they spend it on the recommendations that we have made?”
Courtney Salas-Ford, chief legal counsel for the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the matrix is a funding model, not a spending model, which means that if lawmakers choose to fund the recommendations of this way, there are no restrictions on how it will be spent.
“If you want restrictive funding, it will have to be done in a different way,” she said.
Committee members agreed that funding will need to be addressed at the next meeting.
“For me, that’s where the balance comes in,” May told the committee. “We have to try to provide the resources that they need so that they can do these things, but also be able to hold them accountable to do them.”
The question of accountability related to these recommendations is also something that the members of the committee are trying to understand.
“In my opinion, there is only one group of people who can step in with this responsibility that we need in this situation, and that is [the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education]“, said May.
May noted that a recent school district survey showed that 48 districts did not provide floor plans to first responder agencies. It had to be done by October 1, 2021, she said.
Helder said it was important to move forward with an accountability recommendation to ensure ideas are implemented.
“I love the idea of accountability,” he said, “because otherwise we’ll be back here in four or five years to look at what we’ve recommended and see what’s actually been done.”