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Commission: Uniform training needed to prevent Uvalde’s confusion

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
Cheryl May, chair of the Arkansas School Safety Commission, reminds members recommendations by the commission could be used in legislation during a June 14 meeting.

Law enforcement officers from all agencies need uniform training for school shootings to prevent the confusion during the recent killings at the Uvalde school in Texas, several law enforcement members of the Arkansas School Safety Commission said Tuesday (July 12).

“If we’re all on the same page, then I think that we can react in a uniform fashion,” said Fort Smith Public Schools Police Chief Bill Hollenbeck. “There’s no doubts. There’s no questions to be asked. We’re all going to be trained on the same page to make sure that we stop that threat.”

The commission, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson first created in 2018, has been reactivated to produce an updated report due Oct. 1. The move came after a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde on May 24. Hutchinson has asked for an interim report by Aug. 1. He also has said school security could be included on the agenda for the legislative special session that starts Aug. 8.

Hollenbeck read through a minute by minute timeline of the Uvalde shooting that had been prepared by Texas State University-based Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERTT). The report detailed numerous missed opportunities and failures by law enforcement officers to stop the killer.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, who introduced the report, said it made him “sick at my stomach.” After the killer crashed his vehicle near the school, the first officer on the scene had him in his rifle sights but declined to shoot for fear of hurting others. He then asked for permission to engage, which Helder said was “foreign” to law enforcement officers. Then the suspect entered the building.

Hollenbeck’s summary described the killer’s movements. At 11:33 a.m., he entered the school, went down the hallway, and began shooting students in two classrooms. At 11:37 a.m., officers who entered the classroom threshold were driven off by fire from the shooter. Two were injured by building material fragments caused by the suspect’s rounds passing through school walls.

From that point forward, even as more officers arrived, no one engaged the shooter. At 12:37 p.m., Uvalde Police Chief Pete Arredondo tried to negotiate with the shooter in English and Spanish. It wasn’t until 12:46 that officer Arredondo said, “If you all are ready, do it, just do it, but you should distract him out that window.”

By 12:50, an ad hoc team entered the room and killed the shooter, who had been concealed in a book closet and emerged when the team entered.

Hot Springs Police Department Chief Chris Chapmond said the first priority is stopping the killing. ALERTT trains officers to bypass wounded individuals and delay evacuating people not in harm’s way. The priority is to stop the shooter.

“Everything else becomes secondary,” he said. “And from a leadership standpoint, rank has nothing necessarily to do with leadership on a critical incident. The most qualified person is in command of that situation until a more qualified person arrives on scene. I think that is very evident that we did not see this based on the report that we have. No one took control of the situation, and I believe that led to failure which cost lives.”

The commission’s chair, Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, said after the meeting that likely recommendations will include uniform training, doors that lock from the inside, mental health resources, the creation of school district behavioral threat assessment teams, and possibly the formation of an anonymous statewide reporting system.

“I think what came out of our discussion today is that these folks may have not been as trained as they should have, and the incident command situation went horribly wrong, horribly wrong,” she said. “And I don’t know why anyone else who was there didn’t take the initiative and take over in that set of circumstances. I don’t understand that.”

A questionnaire is being sent to school districts by the commission’s subcommittees in preparation for the interim report’s publication. The commission will next meet July 19. Among the items on the agenda will be comments by public school students.

May also referenced a recent study by Comparitech, a cybersecurity research organization, that found there were three ransomware attacks on eight schools and colleges in Arkansas from January 2018 to mid-May 2022. She said schools are a target for cybercrime because they have a lot of money and store information about students and parents. That information can be sold on the dark web and be used to target students for human trafficking.

She said members of the public who want to comment on the commission’s work can email it at publicinput@cji.edu

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.