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More work needed on school safety, Arkansas lawmakers told

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(The Center Square) – Arkansas lawmakers passed some of the most comprehensive school safety legislation in the county, but more work is needed, a joint education committee heard Monday.

Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, said last year had the highest number of school shootings ever recorded in the U.S., and 2023 could potentially top it.

The LEARNS Act passed earlier this year enhanced the state’s school safety efforts.

“Proudly that ‘S’ on LEARNS stands for Safety,” said May. “Focused on crisis response teams, direct communication with law enforcement, district safety and security teams, behavioral threat assessment teams, so we covered a lot of ground through the LEARNS Act.”

Despite “tremendous progress,” May said there’s more Arkansas needs to do around school safety.

Specifically, she said it should be mandatory for classroom doors to always be locked when students are inside.

“Incident after incident after incident has clearly shown that locked classroom doors save kids’ lives,” May said

Furthermore, she stressed more effort is needed for prevention, not just response and mitigation strategies.

“Providing more mental health resources for our students and making sure that there’s communication between local law enforcement and the schools, because many of the kids who end up becoming school shooters have had contact with law enforcement,” May said. “They have negative factors going on at home. The national threat assessment center talks about how important that is.”

Aside from early identification of potential problems, May told lawmakers that school resource officers should be better utilized.

“Unfortunately, from the data that I’m seeing, is that we’re going more away from school resource officers to commission school security officers that are there in the event of an active shooter – and I’m grateful that they’re willing to be able to do that and that they will be there – but SRO’s are the ones that are going to interact with our kids and they’re going to develop that trust with them and to be able to talk with them about a wide variety of different issues,” said May.

Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, asked about ways to help school resource officers feel better prepared to respond to a shooting.

“Has there been any research done on schools that provide a ballistic shield to the school resource officer, if they’re getting any better protection? That way maybe they’d feel more confident in doing their job,” Long said.

May said having ballistic shields and other equipment was one of the recommendations from the 2022 School Safety Commission.

Jerry Kiefer, director of the DOE’s Safe Schools Unit, said schools were able to apply for funding for that equipment.

“Everybody that had qualified for it was approved for those items,” said Kiefer.

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