The Arkansas School Safety Commission is wrestling with completion of its final report, due Nov. 30.
In a series of meetings, commissioners have been talking about how the multi-faceted report should be presented not just to Gov. Asa Hutchinson but also to the public.
It's a challenging exercise.
The report carries a lot of recommendations, but much of the attention is on the commission's controversial call to have an armed presence in all of the state's public schools.
Commissioned law enforcement officers, who serve as school resource officers in many districts, can provide that armed presence. But the commission is suggesting, as an alternative, that schools might train volunteer teachers, administrators and other staff to be armed "school security officers."
As expected, that volunteer force is controversial among educators, parents and others.
The governor created the 18-member panel in March in response to the Valentine's Day mass shooting of 17 students and adults at a Parkland, Fla., high school. That deadly incident, like others before and since, heightened attention on what schools can do to protect against a gunman.
A lot of the Arkansas commission's recommended measures are preventative, addressing such issues as mental health services, crisis prevention and fortifying school facilities.
It's the armed presence component that draws the headlines, however.
Commissioners talked this week about how to rearrange the report to emphasize the importance of all sections.
They may succeed in bringing some more attention to other elements, but they can't hide the controversy over the potential arming of teachers. Only those teachers and others who volunteer would be trained for the duty, but the idea is still unpalatable to those who oppose it.
For the record, the commission is made up of educators, law enforcement personnel and mental health providers. They issued a preliminary report in July that called for armed security at every school when children and staff are present.
The idea of arming anyone other than a trained law enforcement officer in the schools has been controversial for years.
When the School Safety Commission was reviewing the recommendations in late October, members acknowledged that public concerns about arming volunteers, especially teachers, have not abated.
"It's going to be the lead in all the media stories," offered Will Jones, an assistant attorney general. "Nobody is going to get past that."
Jones is absolutely right.
It won't matter whether it comes first, last or somewhere in between all the other security recommendations in the report. The most worrisome proposal is this idea of arming teachers or other volunteers to protect the schools.
A lot of educators want no part of it. Nor should they even be asked to take on that responsibility. But some might do it, if this recommendation is implemented.
Part of the concern stems from the reality that an awful lot of Arkansas schools are in small towns and counties that don't have the budget to support traditional school resource officers. Even larger school districts may have so many separate campuses that they can't reasonably put a permanent resource officer at each campus any time the schools are open.
While all school districts might prefer to have trained law enforcement as school resource officers, most may instead look at training and arming volunteers -- if they are to have any armed presence in the schools.
That has a cost, too, and may be more than many districts can afford.
Yet, earlier this year, Gov. Hutchinson indicated that any cost for implementing school safety recommendations should be borne primarily by school districts and law enforcement agencies.
That's a position the governor needs to rethink, once he gets the final recommendations from this commission.
The commission's work will be done at the end of the month.
Responsibility for implementing any part of the recommendations will fall to the governor and the Legislature in next year's session.
The best way they can assuage concerns about an armed presence in the public schools is for the state to help the schools and local law enforcement provide properly trained school resource officers.
Commentary on 11/07/2018
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