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WATCH: Schools prepare for additional safety measures

by Brandon Smith | June 22, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.
Lake Hamilton School Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham comments during his superintendent's report Monday night. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

In the wake of last month's deadly school shooting in Texas, Arkansas schools are preparing for such instances more than ever, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstating the Arkansas School Safety Commission earlier this month.

The commission, which includes Hot Springs Police Chief Chris Chapmond, held its second meeting on Tuesday at the state Capitol, during which members reviewed the safety status of K-12 schools throughout the state and heard new recommendations regarding best practices to incorporate.

The commission, which Hutchinson first established in 2018, is due to give an initial report to the governor on Aug. 1 and a final report on Oct. 1.

The commission subcommittees, which include mental health and prevention, law enforcement and security, audits, emergency operation plans and drills, intelligence and communications, and physical security, emphasized not only the importance school personnel training, but a clear understanding of what the guidelines ultimately put into place are.

Lake Hamilton School District Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham addressed the concern of school safety in his superintendent's report during Monday night's monthly board meeting, noting it had been one month since 18-year-old Salvador Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 students and two teachers.

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"It's an ongoing concern," he said. "We never stop thinking about it. It's our first and primary responsibility and we take it seriously. My job is to make sure that people have the resources, training, and that we have the personnel in place."

Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute and Arkansas Center for School Safety, noted Tuesday that in the midst of making decisions regarding new recommendations for school safety that one thing the committee needs to focus on "as much as we can this next week is trying to identify questions that we want to ask for a potential ... another school safety assessment."

"We've had discussions in the past about how to move forward on this. And I will say this: schools have made a lot of progress. They've made an enormous amount of progress. We did an initial report before we did our final report and there was big improvement. Now, you don't know because we can't identify individual schools, how any given school is actually progressing," she said.

May noted they also have to deal with the question of mandates.

"I'm just going to use Texas as an example because the director of the Texas School Safety Center, if you all remember, is a good friend of mine and when we did the first commission in 2018, she traveled here and we talked a lot about how they do it," she said.

"And they mandate a lot there. They mandate an enormous amount. They are mandated to have behavioral threat assessments. The center goes in and actually performs audits of these individual schools. And they've had two shootings within the past couple years. And I'm not going to speak for anybody but I think there's got to be a balance between allowing schools to be able to implement and to look at these and promoting what we do, of course. None of us want our work to go down the drain but yet at the same time, when you start to mandate, I think that opens up a huge chasm of potential things that we have to think about."

Higginbotham noted that in 2015, the Arkansas Legislature drastically changed the licensing system pertaining to security officers on campus in that the Arkansas State Police granted authority to issue Commissioned School Security Officer licenses, which the district holds. The program requires 60 hours of initial training and 24 hours of manual training continuing, he said.

"Other Arkansas districts have adopted this program. We continue to get calls and inquiries. I see us as one of the forerunners in this program. You may recall, in 2018, the Presidential Commission on School Safety visited the campus. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other federal officials joined in that meeting," he said.

In addition to the CSSO program, the district also has two uniformed, armed security officers on staff, as well as an additional unspecified number of nonuniformed, trained and qualified CSSOs on staff. The school also has a School Resource Officer in partnership with the Garland County Sheriff's Office.

He said recommendations still in progress currently include such measures as implementing impact-resistant, bullet-resistant, and blast-proof material on glass, windows and doors; identification numbers for entry and exit doors; numbering and lettering for buildings on exteriors; bollards (short posts) at vulnerable entrances; specialized alarm warning system; and wayfinding directional signage.

Higginbotham noted that there is a potential for a special session of the general assembly next month that could mean more resources for safety and security measures in Arkansas schools.

  photo  The Lake Hamilton School Board discusses school safety during Monday night's regular monthly meeting. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

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