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Chair of Arkansas School Safety Commission says improved reporting system needed

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) listens to Arkansas School Safety Commission Chair Cheryl May during a press conference Monday to unveil the commission's final report with recommendations for schools.
Michael Hibblen
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) tasked Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute (at the podium), in 2018 to chair the Arkansas School Safety Commission. On Dec. 3, 2018, as seen here, Hutchinson and the commission released a report with recommendations for schools.

In response to last week’s shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Arkansas will reevaluate its school safety policies. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is planning to revisit a report prepared in 2018 by the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which he formed through an executive order in response to a shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Hutchinson says he wants to meet with Cheryl May, chair of the commission and director of the Criminal Justice Institute, to discuss recommendations provided in the 124-page report.

“I will be working with Commission Chair Dr. Cheryl May and Secretary of Education Johnny Key to reinforce those recommendations to ensure school districts are as safe as they can be,” Hutchinson said in a written statement last Wednesday. “There is nothing more important than the safety of our children.”

In an interview with KUAR News, May said lawmakers have passed bills in past legislative sessions based on recommendations from the commission. Some of the laws include training school resource officers (RSO) to act as prevention specialists, in addition to their roles as law enforcement.

“They need to have a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid. That is a program that focuses on identifying kids who are having mental health or substance issue challenges. It’s designed for kids 6 to 18 years old,” May said.

Based on the commission’s findings, May said the state also changed the role of guidance counselors.

“A bill was passed in 2019 that made sure that 90% of the school counselor’s time was actually spent interacting with students, instead of an administrative framework,” May said.

One thing that can be done to improve school safety is adopting a statewide network to report threats, similar to what has been set up in Utah and Colorado, May explained.

“The key thing is that most of the calls that they have coming in are kids having a mental health crisis and the harm is not to others but the harm is to themselves,” May said. “Being able to have mental health professionals that when these reports come in and can reach out to these kids is critically important.”

She added that it can be difficult to assess threats made to schools without a statewide reporting system.

“Most school shooters tell somebody before they actually engage in the event they are proclaiming. Being able to identify those threats and evaluate them is important,” May said.

Recommendations from the commission’s 2018 report also included that no campus ever be without an armed presence when children or staff were present, efforts to address mental health issues, training for all personnel who interact with students, having plans in place for how to respond to different situations and improving the physical security of school buildings.

Since they are all recommendations, local school officials are allowed to decide what to implement. In his written statement, Hutchinson said many of the suggestions were implemented by school districts.

KUAR News reached out to Hutchinson’s office to see if there were any particular topics he wants to discuss with May and Key or when they would meet. The office did not immediately respond.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
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