Arkansas Legislature Passes Comprehensive School Safety Laws
LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas legislature has tried to apply lessons learned by other states when it enacted school safety laws over the past several years.
The legislature also applied the best practices recommended by the School Safety Commission in 2018 and 2022.
The Senate and House Committees on Education heard an update from the chair of the commission, who said that “collectively we’ve passed some of the most comprehensive school safety legislation in the country.”
In 2021 the legislature put into law the recommendations of the school safety commission. Act 551 set standards for training of school resource officers. One component of the training is youth mental health aid.
Act 620 requires schools to have a system of emergency communication with local law enforcement, if funding is available.
Although the legislature has done much to improve school safety, there are several more actions that should be taken, the commission chair told legislators on the Education Committee. One is to provide funding for panic buttons and emergency communications.
Act 648 requires an annual lockdown drill at each school in the district. It requires all counselors to take youth mental health training, so they can better recognize the warning signs of a mental health crisis in time to prevent it, either through treatment or other types of intervention.
The school safety commission learned that many counselors were not spending a lot of time with students, and some of their main duties were to administer tests.
In 2023 the legislature enhanced school safety measures by passing Act 237, the LEARNS Act.
The act extends training in youth mental health to all school staff. School districts shall establish a behavioral threat assessment team, which will look for warning signs of potentially dangerous behavior and work with local law enforcement agencies.
School resource officers and local law enforcement officers who work on school campuses are not to be part of routine disciplinary actions against students.
Another important new law passed earlier this year is Act 787 to require schools to lock exterior doors during school hours, except during transition times.
The chair of the school safety commission is the director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute. She told the Education Committee that she would continue to work for passage of laws that require classroom doors and interior doors to be locked.
Also speaking to the Education Committee was the school safety coordinator for the state Education Department. He lent his support to the idea of locking interior doors, telling legislators that “locked doors save lives.”
Perpetrators have broken window panels on locked doors and fired shots through the broken glass. But a 2015 report, conducted after the mass killing in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, found that no one had ever breached a locked classroom door, he said.
The school safety officials emphasized the importance of “hard corners” in classrooms, which are areas where students and teachers are not visible from hallways, door or windows. Combined with locked classroom doors, hard corners in class rooms can save lives by allowing students and teachers to hide.
Unfortunately, this year is probably going to be a record year for school shootings, the officials said. The record was 46 in 2022, and already there have been 45 in 2023.