Aug 3, 2022 - News

Arkansas governor pledges $50M for school safety

Illustration of a row of pencils getting shorter with a bullet at the end.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

As Arkansas parents of nearly a half-million students prepare to head back to school later this month, many are likely thinking about the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May.

Driving the news: Gov. Asa Hutchinson outlined an interim report from the Arkansas School Safety Commission on Tuesday, and he said he's putting a $50 million grant program to fund the implementation of school safety recommendations on the state legislature's special session agenda set for Aug. 9.

Yes, but: Some NWA teachers told Axios they are concerned the commission's recommendations won't receive adequate long-term funding, may not be sustainable for smaller districts and that benefits from mental health measures won't be realized for years.

The big picture: School safety is on the minds of parents with K-12-aged children as missteps and the lack of unified command by law enforcement agencies have come to light after the Uvalde shooting that resulted in 21 deaths.

  • Zoom in: "Firearms" is the third-most searched for term in all four of Arkansas' congressional districts, according to Axios' midterm issue tracker.

State of play: Hutchinson appointed a 24-member commission in June, following the Uvalde shooting. He did the same in 2018 after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack in Parkland, Florida.

  • Both of the governor's commissions have been chaired by Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute in the University of Arkansas System.
  • While several administrative-level educators served on both commissions, only one classroom teacher was appointed to both.

Details: Hutchinson outlined key points from the interim report Tuesday. The commission recommends:

  • Expansion of youth mental health training for all school personnel who interact with students.
  • Requiring all districts to establish a behavioral threat assessment team.
  • Giving all students have access to mental health services either in person or through telehealth.
  • Every campus should have an appointed school safety coordinator who manages audits, drills and compliance.
  • Every campus should have an armed presence at all times.
  • Change state law to keep all doors and exits locked during school hours.

May said the commission is taking a layered approach with tactics intended to cover potential gaps.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder sits on the law enforcement and security subcommittee. He told Axios another recommendation is to have all responding officers in the state take Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training to avoid the issues that slowed the response in Uvalde.

What they're saying: Two NWA teachers who spoke with Axios disagree about whether hardening schools will keep them safe. They feel a so-called "assault weapons ban" or raising age limits on gun purchases would be more effective — and less expensive — in the near term.

  • "I've been having anxiety," Steven Wise, who teaches art for K-5 in Rogers, told Axios. "Suddenly everyone's angry and wants to do something about it. I don't feel unsafe at my school, but there's a sense of cultural unrest … and schools are being singled out. It starts to make you think, 'If I email a parent, what if I say the wrong thing?'"
  • "People that have never been in the classroom are making these profound decisions," Neil Norberg, a Fayetteville High School social studies teacher and president of a Fayetteville teachers union told us. "I'm not saying that there's not a place for government, for … academics and theorists and politicians to make these decisions, but for God's sake, let's hear from more classroom teachers."

Neither educator could completely separate the teacher pay issue, noting that many recommendations will take more time away from teaching and likely mean more responsibilities.

What's next: The School Safety Commission's final report is due in October.

  • Most of the state's public schools start classes Aug. 22, but some begin Aug. 15.
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