James Sturch, Arkansas Senator

The Arkansas School Safety Commission is meeting frequently in order to have an initial report ready for the governor and legislators by August 1. The commission has been charged with updating its original report, which was issued in November of 2018.

At its most recent meeting the commission chair encouraged more school districts to form behavioral assessment teams. In its 2018 report the commission urged schools to create teams. They would include an administrator, a faculty member, a school resource officer, a mental health professional, a school counselor, teachers and coaches.

Schools already have the resources to form behavior assessment teams. The challenge is to get the various school officials and resource officers to communicate as a team.

If a school does not have a behavioral assessment team, information about a troubled student may not be acted on because it doesn’t reach the right person. For example, a teacher may not share it with a mental health professional out of concern for the student’s privacy.

The commission heard from a former Secret Service agent and member of the National Security Council, who has expertise in recognizing behavior that could become violent.

If faculty notice a change in behavior, such as a sharp decline in grades or personal hygiene, they can help the student get counseling before the student gets to a point of desperation, or suicide. Laws that protect a student’s privacy prevent teachers and staff from divulging grades and school records, but it should not prevent them from sharing what they observe with other school officials.

The former Secret Service agent told the commission that for assessments to be accurate, it’s important that information about a student come from more than one person. If a teacher notices a change in behavior, a technical expert can review the student’s social media accounts for threatening messages. A counselor or mental health professional can ask the student to visit. Former teachers can be asked if they witnessed any behaviors that concerned them.

The agent said that in her experience, if only one person contributes to the assessment, it can go wrong. In addition to creating behavior assessment teams, schools should set up a system for receiving
anonymous tips. The administration should send a clear message to the student body that the system is not meant to get someone in trouble, but to provide help.

The former Secret Service agent said that “a lot of these are suicides with collateral damage.” In many school shooting cases, the gunman had been a victim of bullying, she said. She told the commission about a school violence case in which a student had been bullied and his mother reported it to school officials, but they dismissed her concerns. They also didn’t take seriously enough reports that the student said things that frightened other students. They recommended suspension from school rather than a referral to a mental health professional.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission was first formed after a mass killing of students in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. The governor reformed the group after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. In future meetings the commission will work on changes to buildings and facilities, and on law enforcement.