The question of arming school teachers or staff and the best policies to ensure mental health services are available to any student who may need them were only a couple of the topics discussed Friday when Junction City School District representatives met with members of the state School Safety Commission.
Four members of the Arkansas School Safety Commission visited with district administrators and staff as part of the efforts to review safety practices as the commission develops recommendations for its final report. The panel was formed in March through an executive order from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who will receive a final report detailing the recommendations of the commission by Nov. 30.
When asked how the district felt about arming certain teachers or staff, Superintendent Robby Lowe said the district had not moved beyond informal discussion on the idea and noted that parents would need to be included in any conversation on the topic to assess their comfort level with the proposal.
Commissioner Doug Bradberry, who also works in the Arkansas Department of Education, said that a school’s answer on the question has seemed to come back to local response time. In more urban districts, where the response time may be quicker, administrators are more likely to be against the idea, while in more rural districts, where the response time may be closer to 20 or 30 minutes, administrators are more likely to support it.
Junction City Police Chief Russell Lamb said the response time to the local school campus is within a couple of minutes. Lamb said he is not open to the idea as it simply poses an additional threat to him and his officers when responding to the area.
“When I enter a school, my first thought is to save lives, take the threat out,” Lamb said. “And that would pose another threat to me, is what I’m thinking.”
It was also noted that the idea is quite costly as the district would want to have only one or two types of weapons approved for use, plus frequent training and ammunition. All together, Lowe said, it could cost more than $100,000 to implement.
When other concerns were voiced, such as how best to secure the weapon away from students or how law enforcement would differentiate between an armed teacher and a suspect in an active shooter situation, Bradberry noted the successful implementation of such a program at Clarksville, which began arming certain staff members in 2013. At that district, students never see the weapon or know which staff members are armed and, in any emergency situation, once law enforcement is on scene, the staff members surrender their weapons.
But, Bradberry added, the commission is not advocating for the idea. He emphasized that any decision on such a proposal would have to be made at the local level.
“Our purpose … is to give schools options,” Bradberry said. “We’re not telling schools that they have to do it … it’s a concept that’s out there.”
Commissioner Lori Poston, a child and adolescent therapist from Jonesboro, asked several questions concerning policies to address mental health needs at the district. She also discussed several grant and training opportunities to try and expand such coverage and resources.
When Poston asked about the communication between law enforcement and the school, school representatives noted that in a small community like Junction City, they generally know what’s going on with students. Lowe said a part-time school resource officer, a position being brought to the school board later this week, could improve that process further.
“High poverty, rural kids seem to suffer more lack of services … and we may not always know everything,” Lowe said.
It was suggested to the commission that they recommend the legislature look at requiring law enforcement to contact schools when a child is present during an incident. It was also suggested that schools be required to share disciplinary records on a student when they transfer to a new district.
In the two-hour roundtable discussion, those present also talked about the obstacles to further enhanced safety practices. For Junction City, as it is for many school districts across the country, the two main obstacles to further change are funding and aging infrastructure.
“There are a lot of things that we would wish for if money was no object,” Lowe said, noting a full-time school resource officer would be among the items on his wish list.
The campus also has buildings the are more than five decades old mixed with other, newer facilities on a campus that administrators described as being spread out. That mix can mean certain recommendations, such as enclosing the campus with fencing and natural barriers, would be extremely costly to make work.
When commission members were asked about recommending a process for a safety audit or report card for individual school districts to help advise on best practices, Brad Montgomery, commissioner and director of the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, said they had discussed a similar idea and decided that such a review should be done on the local level, pulling from the expertise of area law enforcement and mental health professionals.
“Prevention is where we’re going to gain the most ground,” Montgomery said. “That’s the key.”