Better access to mental-health counseling for students must be a priority as Arkansas leaders look for ways to tighten security at public schools, Governor Asa Hutchinson said today as he accepted a preliminary report from the Arkansas School Safety Commission.

Governor Hutchinson created the Commission by executive order on March 1. Members of the Commission, which has met nine times and formed five subcommittees, have visited schools across the state to determine better ways to protect our students in the classroom.

The commissioners evaluated safety and security policies, emergency plans and policies, and the design of schools – including concepts such as single-point entry and electronic-access badges. The Commission also focused on the mental-health aspect and surveyed the availability of school counseling for students.

“It is crucial that we have mental-health counselors easily available to students,” Governor Hutchinson said at Tuesday’s news conference. “It is crucial that we have threat-assessment teams at schools that coordinate with counselors when a student’s behavior suggests the potential of violence.”

The Public School Student Services Act, passed in 1991, requires school counselors to spend at least 75 percent of their time a work in direct counseling and no more than 25 percent of their time on administrative duties.

“Our school counselors are having to spend too much time on paper work and are not being allowed to spend enough time on the needs of our students,” Governor Hutchinson said.

“Based on the recommendations of the School Safety Commission, I’m directing Commissioner (Johnny) Key and the Department of Education to review that law and to work with the General Assembly to amend the law to improve the availability of school counselors to provide direct counseling for our students. We must improve and increase the coordination between schools and state agencies that provide mental-health services and resources for specific student needs.”

In addition to Commissioner Key, several members of the Commission attended the press conference, including Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute and head of the Arkansas Department of Education’s Safe Schools Committee; Dr. May is chair of the Arkansas School Safety Commission.

“We are grateful for Governor Hutchinson’s leadership and commitment to provide all of Arkansas’s children a better opportunity to learn in a safe and secure environment and reach their true academic potential,” Dr. May said. “I am inspired by my fellow Commission members’ passion and hard work on behalf of Arkansas’s children.”

In its preliminary report, the commission also recommended that every school have at least one armed officer on campus. Governor Hutchinson stressed that no teacher will be required to carry a weapon.

The commissioners also recommended specialized training for school resource officers; increased visibility of police officers on campuses; threat-assessment teams that will monitor situations with potential for violence; and regular assessments of school safety plans and policies.

“The members of the Commission have been very diligent and thoughtful in their work, and the preliminary report provides clarity for determining the next steps,” Commissioner Key said. “The report strikes the right balance for the prevention of violent acts through improving mental health and counseling supports to students, the mitigation of violent acts through better security of school facilities, and reaction to violent acts through appropriately-trained school resource officers and security staff.”

The Commission will deliver its final report to the Governor on November 30, 2018.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission’s full preliminary report and an executive summary of its recommendations can be viewed HERE.