After four months of study and travel to schools all over the state, the Arkansas School Safety Commission has released its preliminary report with 19 recommendations for improving security at our public schools.
I created the commission in March, two weeks after the mass killing at the high school in Parkland, Florida, and asked to see the initial report the first week of July so that we would have time to consider the commission’s findings before school starts in the fall. The commission will submit its final report on November 30, in time to prepare for next session of the General Assembly.
The commission produced a thorough report that gives us plenty to consider.
Of all that we can do to protect our children in school, the most significant thing we can do, which perhaps is also the most difficult, is to notice those often silent pleas for help or warning signs that a teen is troubled. In many of the recent shootings at schools, investigators discovered that suspects had displayed symptoms of mental-health issues or a potential for violence. Counselors and teachers either failed to notice or didn’t know how to proceed if they did.
In Arkansas, we have addressed the role of school counselors, but it is time to revisit and update. The Public School Student Services Act, passed in 1991, requires school counselors to spend at least 75 percent of their time at work in direct counseling and no more than 25 percent of their time on administrative duties.
Our counselors are having to spend too much time on paperwork rather than counseling. With proper training and sufficient time, counselors are more likely to pick up on signs of trouble and intervene before a crisis.
We must make mental-health counselors more readily available to students. We must have threat-assessment teams that coordinate with counselors when a student’s behavior suggests a potential for violence.
Based on the recommendations of the School Safety Commission, I’m directing Johnny Key, Commissioner of the Department of Education, to review that 1991 law and to work with members of the General Assembly to increase mental-health services for our students.
Some of the commission’s other important recommendations include (having) an armed resource officer on each campus at all times. When that is not possible, we must give schools the option of using an armed staff person who has trained for this role.
I do want to emphasize that no teacher or member of a school staff will ever be required to carry a firearm.
Another idea is to provide space for local law-enforcement officers to perform some of their official work on school grounds in order to have a police presence on campus. Another suggestion is to establish a process for anonymous reporting of potential threats. And each school district should conduct a security assessment at least every three years.
The Commission still has much work to do to meet the November 30 deadline, and I am grateful for all the time and energy the members have sacrificed already. Their first report is a solid foundation, and I am eager to see the final report so that we can move quickly to shore up security at our schools.