Hutchinson will add $50M grant program addressing school safety to special session

Governor says grants coming from state’s budget surplus

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with state Education Secretary Johnny Key and  Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, holds a copy of the initial report from the Arkansas School Safety Commission during a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at the state Capitol in Little Rock.  
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with state Education Secretary Johnny Key and Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, holds a copy of the initial report from the Arkansas School Safety Commission during a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

A $50 million grant program that will be used by Arkansas school districts to address safety concerns will go before legislators during next week's special session.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key and Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, announced Tuesday that the grant program, if approved by legislators, will be used to address recommendations made by the Arkansas School Safety Commission.

"These recommendations require an investment of real dollars," Hutchinson said. "That $50 million will be a good start and a support mechanism for our school districts."

Hutchinson said surplus state funds will be used to create the grant system and the General Assembly will set the parameters of the program. He said he expects broad support from legislators when the grant program goes before them next week.

"Legislators will set aside $50 million for this grant program and the Department of Education will be working with Dr. May to create a set of rules that would go back to the [Arkansas Legislative Council] for approval," he said. "There is still work to be done on the specifics of it."

Hutchinson said funding for the school safety grants will come from the state's $1.6 billion surplus and will be similar to the law enforcement training grant program approved in 2021, when legislators set aside $45 million from the general revenue surplus for one-time grants.

The governor said he anticipates funds will be used for upgrades in security or to address specific recommendations that come from the Arkansas School Safety Commission report.

"If this is adopted by the General Assembly, I have directed Secretary Key to get those rules in motion and go back for approval through the Legislature and see how quickly we can move," Hutchinson said. "Some of these recommendations can be handled just by the investment of money. For example, electronic access controls can be done immediately."

Hutchinson said he hopes schools will use the School Safety Commission recommendations when making requests for funding.

The expected recommendations include:

• All school districts provide access to training in the Youth Mental Health First Aid program for all personnel who interact with students;

• All school districts establish a behavioral threat assessment team;

• All students have access to needed mental health services, whether in person at school or via telehealth;

• That every campus has an armed presence;

• Changing state law to allow that all doors and exits remain locked during school hours.

"These recommendations will require money and law changes that will be considered next January," Hutchinson said.

The interim report is available online at the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education website, and the commission will continue to meet until the final report is produced, which is due in October.

Key applauded the efforts of the School Safety Commission.

"In state government too often we see a lot of effort go into studies and they get left on the shelf and not reviewed again," he said. "Under [Hutchinson's] term he has encouraged us leaders in his agency to not allow this to happen.

"The report today is an example of the work done years ago, and the steps that have been fulfilled and completed shows his foresight in 2018. We are now able to strengthen those instead of working with a blank slate."

Hutchinson reinstated the School Safety Commission on June 10 in the aftermath of several mass shootings across the nation. Its subcommittees are focused on mental health and prevention; law enforcement and security; audits, emergency operations plans and drills; intelligence and communication and physical securities.

The state's original school safety commission, created in March 2018, submitted 30 recommendations in its 124-page report. Some schools have implemented portions of the original recommendations, but schools are not mandated to follow the recommendations.

Under the governor's executive order, the current commission is charged with reviewing the previous commission's report published in November 2018 and providing an update on the status of school safety across Arkansas.

May said she wanted to stress the importance of comprehensive strategies when it comes to school safety.

"There is not a single thing a school can do to make that school safe," she said. "It has to be a combination of a variety of things that represent all five subcommittees. Being able to have this layering is incredibly important."

Key agreed, saying the $50 million won't cover all of the layers needed by school districts, but it will address some of them.

"Some of these can be quick turn-around projects with funding," he said.

Hutchinson said he expects every principal and superintendent in the state to read the interim report to see what can be done as quickly as possible.