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As our nation mourns the death of nineteen students and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, the national conversation has turned again to the need to make our schools more secure.
In Arkansas, educators and legislators have long recognized the need for vigilance to keep our children safe. Concern for the safety of our students didn’t suddenly become a priority last week because of the violence in Texas. Four years ago, after a young man killed seventeen students in Parkland, Florida, I created the Arkansas School Safety Commission to assess the state of school security. The commission submitted a 124-page report with thirty significant recommendations. The work of the Commission hasn’t sat on a shelf. In fact, most of the recommendations have been adopted, or we are working toward implementing them.
But we need to do more. The attack in Texas compels us to revisit the findings and to assess the effectiveness of any changes school districts have made. I have asked Dr. Cheryl May, director of the School Safety Center and the Criminal Justice Institute and who was chair of the commission, to call the members back to follow up on their work to ensure that we are doing all we can.
I am considering calling a special session this summer, and if we have one, I will recommend a grant program to help fund the schools’ efforts to improve security.
There are many ways to harden the security of schools. We can invest in security guards, police officers, and school resource officers. We need to control and secure points of entry into a school. And we need to design schools with security as a top priority.
One area of concern is the mental health of students, which is part of the Arkansas Commission’s report. In 2019, the General Assembly responded by passing Act 190, which reduced the administrative duties of school counselors to 10 percent of their time and requires them to spend 90 percent of their time in direct counseling with students. This emphasis on students increases the likelihood that counselors will identify students who are struggling with emotional or mental-health issues.
Other laws that came out of the commission’s work included Act 629, which allows school districts to form their own police departments, and other enactments which focus on comprehensive school safety audits, emergency operation plans, lockdown drills, and require Youth Mental Health First Aid for school counselors.
U.S. senators and representatives are discussing the issue in Washington. Congress certainly has a role in this ongoing conversation and can be helpful, but ultimately, each state and school district must decide locally how to protect students.
There are common sense ways to predict these tragic events, and we must work together to do everything in our collective power to protect our most vulnerable Americans – our children.
The matter of safe schools doesn’t belong to Republicans or Democrats. Each of us has a responsibility to see that schools are among the safest place for our children and educators. Americans in each political party and at all levels of government must work together to ensure that our students and teachers return home after the final bell rings at the end of the day.