Arkansas School Safety Commission reviews unified law enforcement response and chain of command plans as part of recommendations

The Arkansas School Safety Commission is considering recommending a unified law enforcement response to a school shooting to avoid confusion during a crisis.

Commission member Bill Hollenbeck, chief of police for the Fort Smith School Police Department, said the law enforcement and safety subcommittee plans to recommend a training program unified for law enforcement responding to a school shooter incident.

“An active shooting course is needed statewide so we’re all on the same page and there’s no confusion,” Hollenbeck said. “It is imperative that all first responders understand what the roles and responsibilities are during an active shooter situation, which is to quickly enter and eliminate the threat. No waiting.”

He said a vendor for the potential unified training method has not been chosen.

“We may be considering recommending statewide active shooter training, but we’re determining which group would provide that training in uniform,” Hollenbeck said Tuesday. “We are also thinking of an annual networking course to try to get up-to-date training for these officers. It is also possible to look at model school districts to develop the minimum standards.”

A recommendation that all school districts and institutional agencies have policies in place for local law enforcement regarding an active shooter response was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.

Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute and head of the Arkansas School Safety Commission, said the commission only had the power to make recommendations and would require the legislature of State transforms any recommendation into law.

Hollenbeck said the commission should also consider recommending that school resource officers be equipped with body armor, shields and forcible entry tools that allow them to respond quickly to a threat on campus, as well than tactical training on how to engage a threat on their own. .

“Getting the whole state on the same page is vitally important,” Hollenbeck said. “I know our officers statewide wouldn’t hesitate to do this, but it’s extremely important that our students and staff know that we have this uniformed training.”

Hollenbeck said school resource officers in his department practice “solo engagement,” and he supports expanding that idea statewide as part of the uniformed response proposal. .

“Our officers are specifically trained not to wait for reinforcements, but to immediately assess the threat, engage the threat and stop that threat,” he said.

Such training must also be available for armed personnel in schools, he said.

RESPONSE TO UVALDE

Governor Asa Hutchinson reinstated the Arkansas School Safety Commission on June 10 following several mass shootings across the country, including the May 24 shooting that killed 19 children and two adults in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

The shooter, identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos from Uvalde, was killed by law enforcement officers after waiting more than an hour to confront the gunman in a locked classroom. The incident was one of the worst K-12 school shootings since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 people dead.

One of the main concerns following the Uvalde shooting was how long it took officers to enter once it was known that a gunman was in the building and had fired the shots. .

The New York Times reported that the school district’s police chief, who led the response, seemed distressed by the time it took to secure protective shields for officers entering the building and to find the key. classroom doors.

Police waited more than an hour to enter Robb Elementary’s fourth-grade classroom, and some victims likely could have been saved if they had received medical attention sooner, a review by a health center found. training for active shooter situations at Texas State University.

The authors of the 26-page report said their findings were based on videos taken at the school, police body cameras, testimony from officers at the scene and statements from investigators. Among their findings was that “effective incident command” never appears to have been established among the multiple law enforcement agencies responding to the shooting.

Arkansas’ original School Safety Commission, established in March 2018, submitted 30 recommendations in its original 124-page report. Among those recommendations was that schools should have a memorandum of understanding with local police departments or sheriff’s offices regarding the plan to protect students during an active shooter event.

These plans are not publicly available.

“We have emergency response plans, but Law 541 protects this document and prevents us from sharing it for security reasons,” said Ron Self, director of safety and security management for the district. Little Rock School.

Dustin Barnes, spokesman for the North Little Rock School District, said his response plan depends on the severity of the situation.

“The first level would be [North Little Rock Police Department]. If it’s bigger, like we saw in Uvalde, it would be the FBI,” he said.

Scott Gauntt, superintendent of the Westside School District in Jonesboro, said a chain of command was not in the district’s memorandum of understanding, but officials had a plan in place.

“We have a Craighead County Deputy as a School Resource Officer on campus [in addition to two other school resource officers provided by the district]so in case of an emergency, we have already set up the line of communication that we would follow,” he said.

Kimberly Mundell, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education, said that currently the draft memorandum of understanding for school resource officers does not address how a response to an active shooter will be. managed.

“This is a law enforcement decision made at the time of the event; however, districts are encouraged to involve law enforcement as part of the exercise and security planning conducted by schools,” she said.

CHAIN ​​OF COMMAND

The 2018 recommendations did not include a “chain of command” recommendation, but Hollenbeck said most law enforcement policies and procedures were already in place.

“On an active shooter, the first person in command is the first officer on scene,” he said. “He doesn’t have to be a sergeant or chief of police when there’s an active threat to make the decision to stop that threat.”

Chris Chapmond, chief of the Hot Springs Police Department and president of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed that the first responding officer was initially responsible for the scene.

“It allows officers to act, but also eliminates any confusion during an active shooter situation,” he said.

Chapmond said it was important because things can get chaotic once other law enforcement arrives on the scene.

“Officers on the ground make those initial decisions until eventually someone who is their superior has to take over,” he said. “In a large county, you can get help from all local entities, including Game and Fish. That’s why we need a unified command system.”

Chapmond said the current model means a law enforcement officer may not be the most qualified person to take command.

“The most qualified person can be anyone from any department,” he said. “Egos need to be checked and left at the door. That means the fire chief may be the most qualified person, or the director of emergency management may be the most qualified person depending on the situation.

“All that matters is that a joint unified command can prepare you for the stage.”

Members of the Arkansas State Police typically arrive on the scene during most crisis incidents, but Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the state agency, said that doesn’t mean necessarily that the state police will take control of the situation.

Depending on the circumstances, Sadler said, most local jurisdictions are aware of the personnel and equipment resources the state police can provide and regularly call on the state police for assistance.

“In some cases, the local jurisdiction may direct the state police to take command and control or lead, or work together through a unified command,” he said.

Sadler said in an example of a potential school shooting that local police or the sheriff’s office would initially respond and upon arrival they may request assistance from state police.

“Once the soldier is there, he contacts his supervisor and explains what assistance is requested,” Sadler said.

Sadler said which agency would take control of a unified command would depend on the specific request of the local jurisdiction.

“For example, State Police SWAT has a standing policy with local sheriffs or police chiefs that if you want SWAT to intervene, we will have the sheriff or police chief pull their people out and bring in the ASP,” he said.

Sadler said a unified response may have been discussed previously, but it was always on a case-by-case basis and the decision of the local police department.

Hollenbeck said while there are plans in place for how to respond to an active shooter threat and how the chain of command will work, it’s important to unify it because it will help document the plan for the audience.

“Our students and staff have a right to hear and know that these officers know exactly what to do in an active shooter situation, and that is to eliminate the threat as soon as possible,” he said.