Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Get ready for another debate over guns in Arkansas schools.
A state commission this week endorsed recommendations to allow school districts to arm some employees as a means to improve public school safety.
It isn't a new idea. The state Legislature has already authorized specially trained employees of Arkansas schools to have firearms on their respective campuses.
Local school boards decide whether to set up a program in their districts and a state board must license the individuals who volunteer to participate. They may be teachers, administrators, janitors, bus drivers or other school personnel.
The practice is not widespread. Nor is it particularly popular with all teachers and school administrators around the state.
Allowing school personnel to be "commissioned school security officers" was how Arkansas lawmakers answered school safety concerns in the wake of earlier school shootings around the nation, including that shocking slaughter of Sandy Hook kindergartners and first-graders in Connecticut in 2012.
By 2013, Arkansas school districts, or some of them, were talking about arming volunteer employees. Clarksville did and was described this week as a model for how to have more guns at the ready in case an armed intruder shows up at school.
The mention came as the Arkansas School Safety Commission accepted the recommendations of its law enforcement subcommittee.
The subcommittee chairman, Tim Helder, who is the Washington County sheriff, on Monday called for "a paradigm shift, where we recognize and acknowledge the vulnerability of schools in today's society."
Actually, acknowledging that vulnerability is why the commission exists, why these 18 gubernatorial appointees are trying to come up with ways to make Arkansas schools safer, to "harden" them, as is so often said.
It is part of Arkansas' response to the threat of school shootings like the more recent attack in Parkland, Fla., in February.
Sadly, there have been too many such incidents, including more since Parkland saw 17 people, students and teachers, killed by a young gunman.
Parkland, with its student-led protests, refocused attention on the far-too-familiar problem. Students there and elsewhere are demanding greater gun regulation and are trying to get Americans to register and vote to get it, but their activism also triggered parallel nationwide efforts to make schools safer.
Creation of the Arkansas School Safety Commission was a direct response.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson named people from law enforcement and education as well as mental health professionals to the task force in March. He expects preliminary recommendations by July 1 and a final report in November.
The law enforcement piece of the study is critical, of course.
As Sheriff Helder said, there is a difference between feeling safe and being safe in schools.
"It has become apparent that a rapid armed response, from within the school building, saves lives," he said. "The faster a school shooter is engaged by armed responders, the sooner the situation is halted. This directly translates to lives saved."
Helder acknowledged a preference for leaving that responsibility to school resource officers, who are employed by local police departments and sheriff's offices to work in the schools.
"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 all schools have access to school resource officers. Smaller police departments or sheriff's offices can't necessarily spare their limited personnel for that duty. Even larger agencies, with more schools to protect, can't police them all.
That's the real reason this state may try to arm more school employees.
At least the recommendation, as approved this week, is to follow the example set in Clarksville, which has had a program for five years now and goes beyond what state law requires for commissioned school safety officers.
Apparently, people there have gotten comfortable with the program, which requires participants to undergo psychological testing and background checks as well as firearms training.
Their weapons are stored in locked safes in the schools but available if the need arises.
The Clarksville superintendent, David Hopkins, who has overseen development of the program, is also on the state commission.
Hopkins had to win local acceptance to implement the program and other school districts will have to do the same, assuming the choice is ultimately left to them.
Nothing is settled yet. Nor will it be until the commission issues its report and the governor acts on it, presumably in his next legislative package.
Expect Arkansas' lawmakers to be receptive. They were quick enough to authorize concealed carry on public college campuses, even denying the colleges the option of vetoing the policy.
That was also done in the name of school safety, even as those being protected protested the increased presence of guns on campus.
Expect protest, too, from teachers and other public school employees, not to mention parents, who won't want guns in the hands of anyone in the schools other than law enforcement and, specifically, school resource officers.
Yet, with this threat of school shootings ever looming, the likelihood is that more Arkansas K-12 school employees may eventually be armed.
Commentary on 06/13/2018
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