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Startling Stats On Bullying, Suicide And Sexual Assault Give Arkansas School Safety Panel Huge Task

Cheryl May
Karen Tricot Steward

After the shooting deaths of 17 students and adults at a high school in Florida earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson formed the Arkansas School Safety Commission to research how to protect the state’s students and school staff from violence.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission was formed in March. The chair of the 18-member group is Cheryl May, the director of the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock. The institute is part of the University of Arkansas system. 

May says the makeup of the commission represents a variety of stakeholders.

"There are parents. There are teachers. There are administrators. There's law enforcement. There's emergency management. And counseling and mental health experts," May explains.

She says the governor wants the commission to evaluate the prevalence of school violence in Arkansas and come up with best practices for moving forward. 

May says the state has a history of school violence, pointing to the 1998 shooting at West Side Middle School in Jonesboro that killed five people and left ten wounded, and the 1997 shooting at Stamps High School that left two students injured. 

"It hits a little bit closer to home," May says.

The commission has been meeting at a time when several reports have provided data and perspective on how many Arkansas students are living through rough times. A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that high schoolers in Arkansas have been forced to have sex, have seriously considered attempting suicide and have been bullied at school more than in any other state in the nation.

Lori Poston is a licensed clinical social worker for a community mental health center in Jonesboro and serves on the commission. She says her goal is to address mental health issues so that situations do not escalate to the point that law enforcement is needed. 

"I want us to identify children who are struggling, intervene early, prevent what we can, and get them connected to the right resources that can help them," Poston says.

She says examples of such resources are mental health support and anti-bullying campaigns. She says she has been especially impressed with a campaign called Ditch The Label.

Poston thinks school violence is stemming from of a culture of violence in Arkansas, especially in the home, and high child abuse rates.

A recent study by the non-profit research organization Child Trends found that kids in Arkansas have a higher percentage of adverse childhood experiences, like physical and sexual abuse and exposure to violence and drug abuse, than their peers in other states. 

"They see a lot of violence. They experience a lot of violence. They are not taught that violence isn’t the answer to everything," Poston says.

Poston thinks that bullying and other incidents of violence will not improve unless the culture changes.

Safer School Buildings

Another issue the commission has taken up is how to build or retrofit schools to make them safer. Securing entryways, limiting the use of large glass panels and having classroom doors that lock from the inside without having to use a key have been proposed.

David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville School District and a commission member, says the struggle is that, when it comes to building schools, what is best for education often does not line up with what is best for security. 

"We could make a school a fortress, but that is not necessarily the most conducive way to go about educating our kids. Kids like natural light. We’ve got studies that show that it benefits the learner. But yet in the event of an active shooter, they’re looking in rooms and you're trying to get people out of [the] line-of-sight. Yet if they're able to clearly see into a room, for security reasons, that is a bad design," Hopkins says.

For five years, The Clarksville School District has had armed school employees. Hopkins says his district implemented the policy after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.

"What we did in Clarksville is we went about trying to find a way to provide armed protection saturated throughout the building and have it there in the event that a person comes in and tries to harm our people with a weapon," Hopkins says.

The Clarksville School District keeps its employees' guns in locked safes throughout the building.

Hopkins thinks every school in the state needs armed security of some type. He says that could be a school resource officer - an armed law enforcement officer assigned to a school - or armed staff.

Arming School Staff 

Arming staff is an issue that has sparked great concern from several parents, like Sarah Quintanar, a mother of two boys in the Little Rock School District and an associate professor at UA Little Rock.

She believes the presence of more guns doesn’t make schools safer, but does make students and staff more vulnerable. Her boys attend Gibbs Magnet Elementary and she says they have an armed school resource officer that serves as a good role model for the children.

Quintanar says that while she ultimately favors not having any guns in schools, a law enforcement officer with a gun presents a much lower risk.

"They’re not having to find a place to store it in a classroom where kids are. There are research papers that have found that kids are aware of where their parents store their guns. They are aware of where the ammo is stored. They can access it if they want to. I find it hard to believe that, over time, that wouldn’t also happen in a classroom," Quintanar says.

She will pull her children out of their school, she says, if the district moves toward a policy of arming teachers.

"I know that there are likely, across the state, lots of parents who feel the same way as I do and don’t have the resources to pull their kids out. And so that, to me, is extremely frustrating and I don’t know how we handle that," Quintanar says.

Commission Chair Cheryl May says it is not up to the commission to take a position on whether school employees in Arkansas should be armed. She notes that current Arkansas law already allows it and that it is already happening. 

"So it’s not like we're saying this is okay to do," May says.

She says it is up to every community to decide if they want to go down that road and that the commission sees its job as making recommendations for standards and best practices if they do.

"We believe that if they choose to go down the road, the one model that we think that is the best practice for that, should they chose to do this, is the Clarksville School District."

May says the Clarksville School District requires armed staff to do psychological exams and be drug tested. They are also required to undergo training with law enforcement. 

"Right now there’s no requirement for a policy. The commission felt like having a policy like Clarksville does, which identifies the roles and responsibilities and how those guns should be handled, are critically important."

Richard Davies, who is on the board of The Arkansas Safe Schools Association, is retired from serving as full time law enforcement in Pine Bluf. He is a certified law enforcement instructor who says he has mixed feelings about arming school staff.

Davies says that law enforcement is trained to respond to an active shooter by taking down threats as quickly as possible. He says when he tries to put himself in the shoes of a law enforcement officer trying to respond to an active shooter situation, he sees the likelihood of accidental shooting.

"Poor guy on the street in a little county comes blowing up there in his car, bails out [and] runs in to go after a shooter and what does he see? Somebody in the hallway with a gun. That person swings around and sees somebody with a gun and there could be a shootout between the two good guys," Davies says.

School Resources Officers As A Violence Prevention Strategy 

While there has been hesitation about arming school staff, Davies and many members of the School Safety Commission have emphasized the importance of having armed school resource officers.

The Deputy Superintendent for the Little Rock School District, Marvin Burton, serves on the safety commission. He says the school resource officers are not merely law enforcement officers in a school. Rather, they are part of an overall prevention strategy that involves having someone develop relationships with the children and serve as a mentor and informal counselor. 

"[They are] invaluable to the overall culture of the school. Beyond just safety, they are part of the whole school learning environment. They are involved in classes and things of that nature. So they are beyond just a typical police officer. They are part of the actual culture," Burton said.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission must have its preliminary recommendations to the governor by July 1. A final report is expected to be issued in November.

Karen Tricot Steward was a News Anchor, Reporter and Content Development Director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.