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Arkansas School Safety Commission reviews prior report for areas of improvement

Cheryl May, chair of the Arkansas School Safety Commission, reminds members of the legislation the commission helped passed in the past few years.
Ronak Patel
During the first meeting of the Arkansas School Safety Commission on June 14, commissioners decide which subcommittees to join.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission is considering possible ways to improve school safety. At a meeting Tuesday, the second since Gov. Asa Hutchinson brought the commission together, members of different subcommittees shared ideas that should be considered.

Commissioners are tasked with looking at recommendations issued four years ago and updating them for a report that is to be given to Hutchinson in August.

A.J Gary, director of Public Academic Facilities for the Arkansas Department of Education, said after reviewing district safety and security team policies that updates need to be made to make the teams more active.

“We further discussed a possible recommendation for these teams to meet at least annually with their local county emergency manager, fire and police to review their emergency operations plans,” Gary said.

He noted that two-thirds of districts have a safety and security team in place.

Bill Hollenbeck, chief of police for the Fort Smith Public Schools Police Department, said districts can also improve safety by giving local law enforcement master keys to their schools. He said it can be difficult for police to respond to an emergency since schools have many different locks on their doors.

“Schools are very good at getting good doors that keep bad guys out,” Hollenbeck said. “But when we need to get in, we need to make sure we have the right keys to get in.”

Improvements to surveillance were also discussed. Jami Cook, director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, said one recommendation to look into is having license plate readers at schools. Cook said she got the idea after an active shooter traveled to Arkansas from Mississippi and was arrested because law enforcement were able to identify his vehicle.

“If we knew an active shooter or someone made a threat of an active shooter and we knew what their license plate is or what car they’re in, we can put that in the license plate reader. Hopefully, we can tag that person before they get to whatever location they’re threatening,” Cook said.

She explained one challenge will be privacy concerns, which come from misunderstanding. These license plate readers wouldn’t be used like traditional readers used by police to send traffic tickets.

Toward the end of the meeting, commission Chair Cheryl May told her colleagues not to get discouraged if their recommendations aren’t mandated.

“None of us want our work to go down the drain, but at the same time, when you start to mandate it, I think it opens up a huge chasm,” May said.

She said the commission has to strike a balance between mandates and allowing school officials to make their own decisions about what they want to implement.

The commission will hold meetings every week until an initial report is due to the governor in August. A final report is due in October. Live streaming of the meetings can be found at https://www.arkansashouse.org/watch-live.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
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