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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas School Safety Commission member Will Jones, an assistant attorney general, listens to a presentation of a subcommittee report Monday morning at the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission on Monday endorsed recommendations that favor arming school district employees -- as already allowed in state law -- who volunteer to undergo training and psychological testing.

The use of the "commissioned school security officers" was among several strategies proposed by the law-enforcement subcommittee of the commission and accepted by the full commission for inclusion in recommendations to Gov. Asa Hutchinson later this month.

The expanded use of school resource officers, who are armed law enforcement officers assigned to school campuses, and the hiring of current or retired law enforcement officers as substitute teachers at a school were other subcommittee suggestions accepted by the commission.

Hutchinson appointed the 18-member task force in March after an armed intruder killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school on Feb. 14. Since then there have been school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas, killing 10, and in Noblesville, Ind., where two were shot but survived. In all, 35 people died in U.S. school shootings during the just-ended 2017-18 school year, according to Education Week, a national publication.

The Arkansas commission -- made up of law enforcement personnel, educators and mental health professionals -- is to to make preliminary recommendations to Hutchinson by July 1 and issue its final report in November.

Cheryl May, commission chairman and director of the University of Arkansas' Criminal Justice Institute, said Monday that the commission's mission is to propose the means to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond and recover in the event of threats to students and staff.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, chairman of the commission's law enforcement subcommittee, said the suggested strategies "can be immediately implemented and will effectively improve safety."

"Understanding that there is a difference between feeling safe and being safe, we believe true safety can only be accomplished with a paradigm shift, where we recognize and acknowledge the vulnerability of schools in today's society," Helder said in introducing the proposals to the full commission.

"It has become apparent that a rapid armed response, from within the school building, saves lives," he added. "The faster a school shooter is engaged by armed responders, the sooner the situation is halted. This directly translates to lives saved. Currently, there are several options available for school districts to increase the armed presence in their schools," he said, listing them. "Other options are being looked at but might require legislative changes."

Members of the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America attended the Monday meeting but declined to make any immediate comment about the commission's votes. Organization members spoke in opposition to arming Arkansas school employees at an earlier commission meeting.

May questioned Helder about the proposals, noting that earlier speakers to the committee -- including educational administrators, teachers and parents -- had been more supportive of the increasing the numbers and use of school resource officers (armed police assigned to schools) over the commissioned school security officers who are school employees -- even teachers -- who volunteer to be armed on the job.

"Every school we visited said that would be the No. 1 option," May said about school resource officers.

"If money were no object and all schools and law enforcement agencies played well together, we would love to have an SRO [school resource officer] on every campus," Helder said.

Not every school has access to resource officers, who are employees of local police departments and sheriff's offices, Helder added. The ideal is a blended use of school resource officers and commissioned school safety officers, or the layering of safety measures to "harden" or better protect a school, he said.

Jami Cook, a commission member and director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, said having a known armed presence at a school, just as in a neighborhood, deters and reduces crime.

She also acknowledged that law enforcement agencies struggle to retain their officers over time, resulting in the agencies pulling their officers from a campus to fulfill other law enforcement duties.

May noted that several commission members were initially apprehensive about the use of armed school employees because of the potential for confusion and crossfire in the event of an active shooter situation. Helder said he knew little about the commissioned school safety officers before Clarksville School District Superintendent David Hopkins, also a commission member, explained the system used in his district.

May called Clarksville's system a model program that goes above and beyond what state law requires for commissioned school safety officers. The subcommittee included in its recommendations those extra features of the Clarksville program.

The Clarksville district has policies and operating procedures, for example, that require participating employees to undergo psychological testing and background checks as well as the state-required 60 hours of initial training.

The volunteer safety officers train with law enforcement officers in their community. Their weapons are serviced annually. They can't carry guns in bags or purses, but only in approved holsters. Once at school, the arms must be placed in locked safes throughout a building. The employees also are provided ammunition for regular shooting practice at a range.

A.J. Gary, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and a commission member, emphasized that the commissioned school safety officers receive as much training in the particular area of firearms as regular law enforcement officers.

Hopkins reminded the commission that the commissioned officers are not law enforcement officers but are there to respond in the event of an active shooter.

The proposals adopted by the commission Monday regarding firearms on campuses do not call for them to be mandatory for schools.

"We are trying to set up a buffet for people to choose from," Hopkins said.

The commission's subcommittees on intelligence and communication, and on safety and security audits/active shooter drills also submitted and received preliminary approval of their proposals Monday for the commission's preliminary report to the governor.

The proposals by the commissions subcommittees are available for public review on the Arkansas Department of Education website:

The commission will meet again at 9:30 a.m. June 21.

Metro on 06/12/2018

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