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FAYETTEVILLE -- Superintendent Matthew Wendt explained Friday the newly formed School Safety and Security Task Force is part of a larger plan to assess facility security, student mental health and faculty training.

Wendt discussed the formation of the task force at a joint meeting Thursday of the City Council and School Board.

Task force

Membership of the Safety and Security Task Force includes:

• Co-chairman John L Colbert, associate superintendent for support services for Fayetteville Public Schools

• Co-chairman Frank Johnson Sr., director of investigations for Walmart and former Fayetteville Police chief

• Conner Eldridge, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas

• Erin Wiedermann, U.S. Magistrate for the Western District of Arkansas

• Beth Storey Bryan, Washington County Circuit judge

• Tim Helder, Washington County sheriff

• Greg Tabor, Fayetteville police chief

• Steve Gahagans, University of Arkansas chief of police

• Greg Leding, Arkansas legislator

• David Whitaker, Arkansas legislator

• Chris Lawson, Fayetteville Public Schools general counsel

Ex-Officio:

• Holly Johnson, director of communications and public relations for Fayetteville Public Schools

• Susan Norton, director of communications and marketing for the City of Fayetteville

Source: Fayetteville Public Schools

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The task force will have members from law enforcement and the judicial system, experts in safety and security, elected officials and school district employees. It will focus on evaluating the safety of buildings and campuses.

John L Colbert, a 39-year veteran at the school and associate superintendent for support services, and Frank Johnson Sr., director of investigations for Walmart and former Fayetteville police chief, will co-chair the task force.

"We feel good about what we have, but it's always good to have those experts come in and evaluate and see how we can make our district even safer," Colbert said.

The district has made numerous security improvements through the years, Wendt said, pointing specifically to the locked doors that require someone to be buzzed in at every school. He noted the new high school has about a dozen entrances compared to nearly 70 at the old building.

The School District will expand the focus to include children's mental health needs through another group and intensive staff training this summer on behaviors related to mental health, intervention, counseling, and school safety and security.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder, who has served on committees dealing with mental health issues in the justice system, is on the task force. He has also served 15 years on the West Fork School Board. He has been asked to serve on the Arkansas School Safety Commission.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order Thursday to create the commission.

"I have appointed a stellar array of experts to study and assess the state of security at our schools and to recommend how to fill the gaps they find," Hutchinson said in a news release Friday. "The commission will look at a broad range of issues, from the practical matter of school architecture with an emphasis on single-point entry to limit access. Commissioners also will recommend ways to anticipate threats in order to prevent attacks."

In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead, improving the safety of schools has taken on a new urgency, Hutchinson said.

"The protection of our students must be assured and demands the immediate attention of professionals in education, law enforcement, security, and mental health," he said.

Helder said law enforcement officials provide a unique perspective when it comes to security, and he is focused on the part they will play in short- and long-term solutions.

"My hope is everyone comes in with an open mind as far as solutions, but also an intense focus to come up with those solutions in regards to school shootings," he said. "It's a very important issue and we have to stand by the fact that if it's predictable it can be preventable. Whether here in Fayetteville or in the whole state, we must stay vigilant. I am very excited and honored to participate."

Helder, Wendt and Colbert have been discussing since November student resource officers. There are five in the district, one at each junior high, two at the high school and one at Agee Lierly Life Preparation Services.

Colbert said they've talked about adding officers at middle and elementary schools and discussed possibly using private security. The current school officers take care of issues when they arise at the campuses for younger children, Wendt said.

The task force members will have their first meeting after spring break.

They will partner with a private assessment company to examine the district's facilities in terms of safety and security, assess the district's crisis plan, look at best practices from schools across the nation, and report to Wendt and the school board by June. The company's fee is $68,000, school spokesman Alan Wilbourn said.

Wendt specifically pointed to Southwestern High School in Shelbyville, Ind., which has been referred to as "the safest school in America" since the airing of a segment on NBC's Today in 2015. They have hundreds of cameras and so does Fayetteville, but the difference is Southwestern's cameras stream live feeds directly to the sheriff's office. That's something that could be part of the conversation at Fayetteville, Wendt said, as an example.

"We are going to do whatever it takes," Wendt said. "We already fly all over the world to learn how to better educate kids. There isn't anything we won't do to protect our students, our employees and our parents."

The second phase of Wendt's plan focuses on counseling and mental health. Another task force will be assembled, again combining experts and school staff to develop a system that better addresses mental health needs. This aligns with a goal of the school board and superintendent to take some duties, such as creating the master schedule, from counselors to allow them to focus on the children.

"Statistics show that within every classroom there is at least one student with a mental health disorder," Wendt said. "It is imperative that we create a systemic structure to train our staff to recognize students with mental health concerns and to connect those students with the professionals and services that can help them. One of the most important components to this over-arching issue is to remember the importance of the teacher-student relationship."

Students also will be involved, Wendt said. For example, Jay Dostal, the incoming Fayetteville High principal, will organize a student group.

"I am really pleased that Dr. Dostal is creating this student leadership advisory council. We need to give our students the opportunity to join the discussion and to be a part of the solution," Wendt said.

Spokesmen for the other three large school districts in the region said their districts aren't forming a similar task force, but they all work with law enforcement to keep schools safe and secure.

"We work closely with the local police on our safety plans. We want them involved every step of the way whether we're preparing our response to an emergency or investigating a concern," said Ashley Kelley Siwiec, communications director for Rogers Public Schools. "Our superintendent had already been in ongoing discussions about our safety and training plans with the Rogers Police Department."

NW News on 03/04/2018

Print Headline: Fayetteville superintendent unfolds multi-phase safety, security plan

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