Panel Calls For Each Arkansas School To Have An Armed Presence

Jul 3, 2018

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Arkansas School Safety Commission Chair Cheryl May at Tuesday's release of the panel's preliminary report.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The Arkansas School Safety Commission is recommending that each school in the state have an armed presence on campus. That means at least one trained person with a firearm would be available to immediately respond to any act of violence, including an active shooter.

The recommendation was one of 19 included in a preliminary report from the panel, which was created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson after a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and staff and wounded 17 others.

Surrounded by members of the commission Tuesday at the state Capitol, Hutchinson expressed support for the recommendations.

"No campus should ever be without armed presence when staff and children are present," Hutchinson said. But he emphasized that no teachers or school staff would be required to carry a gun.

"There's so much expression of emotion about teachers being armed, and that's why I underscored the point, there's nothing in the recommendations and nothing in my philosophy that would mandate that. Teachers should never be required to carry a firearm, and I think that's what the public is responding to."

Ideally, Hutchinson said, more armed school resource officers would be hired. Or school staff who volunteer to undergo extensive training to carry a weapon would be utilized.

"Currently 68 percent of our 238 school districts are covered, but we need to expand the availability of school resource officers so that the campuses can be protected, and then when school resource officers are not available, be able to look at options as to how to have an armed presence," Hutchinson said.

The report emphasized that it would be up to local school officials to decide which strategies to implement. More resource officers would only be feasible at schools that have the money to allocate to the positions. The Arkansas Legislature could eventually direct funding toward that option.

Arkansas Education Commission Johnny Key said another important recommendation involves assessing the physical layout of each school.

"You look at the mitigation, things that we can do through facilities, through the structures, through the hardening of those facilities to mitigate should a violent incident occur," Key said. "Then finally, just the reaction that if it does occur, what assets do we have on campus to be able to react appropriate, quickly, and to provide that level of safety that we all expect."

But Eve Jorgensen, leader of the group Arkansas Moms Demand Action, says having more guns at schools is not the solution. Members of her group have had a visible presence at meetings of the Arkansas School Safety Commission wearing red and white shirts calling for more gun control. Members were also present in the Governor’s Conference Room for Tuesday’s announcement.

"We need to tighten up our background check system. We need to implement red flag laws, which would be like a temporary restraining order from your gun when you're showing these red flags. They're being passed across the country and they work," Jorgensen told KUAR after Hutchinson's event. "Connecticut has seen all sorts of gun reforms since Sandy Hook and their levels of suicide by gun, their homicide rate, their school shootings, everything is lower than the rest of the country."

She noted that school resource officers have been present at some schools where shootings occurred, like at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School in February, but death tolls were still high.

"We need something that's going to prevent these kids from accessing weapons and bringing them to school," Jorgensen said

The commission's report also calls for incresing mental health resources for students, having an anti-bullying program, and requiring schools to get a state safety assessment each three years.

Hutchinson said he set the deadline for the preliminary report to be due by July 1 to give school officials time to prepare before the start of the upcoming school year. The final report from the commission is due November 30.