Arkansas schools investing millions of dollars in safety measures

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Already underfunded school districts in Arkansas are spending millions on security and safety measures even as the state’s elected leaders cherish a lack of gun regulation and the Arkansas School Safety Commission is recommending even more security measures.

An Arkansas Times review of state data for fiscal 2018-22 found that the state’s public school districts spent almost $200 million on safety measures. The exact number totaled $178,309,862.18 and is based on spending in designated categories reported to the state Department of Education.

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Notably, that sum doesn’t include some especially costly spending, such as safe rooms and storm shelters. So, the actual total spent on school safety is likely much higher.

“There is not any specific code within the capital outlay sections of [the Statewide Information System Handbook] that address things like safe rooms, storm shelters, security systems, etc. Those items likely would be included in construction costs of such projects; however, we do not really have a way to identify those,” Education Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said in an email.

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The data also show that some school districts spend far more money on resource officers and other security measures than other districts. The reasons are diverse. In some cases, local law enforcement agencies can spare one or more of their officers to work on campuses. But if they can’t, the districts often hire security officers at their own expense. Further, many school districts have more than one, two or several buildings spread out over a city. Placing a security officer in each of those buildings gets expensive and is the reason many schools lack resource officers.

Further, safety spending is high in low- and high-crime areas, according to the data we reviewed.

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For example, Pine Bluff School District spent $3,402,042.96 during those years while Bentonville School District similarly spent $3,471,903.71. Little Rock School District spent $19,627,799.99; Pulaski County Special School District, $10,282,822.56; Conway School District, $3,464,051.18; Fort Smith School District, $5,310,996.25; Jonesboro School District, $2,644,636.79; Nettleton School District, $2,251,831.59. Westside Consolidated School District in Craighead County, where a deadly mass shooting occurred in 1998, spent $1,043,428.73. North Little Rock School District spent $1,369,692.38; Russellville School District, $1,978,804,49.

By contrast, Marked Tree School District in Northeast Arkansas where I grew up reported spending just $544 while Gravette School District in Northwest Arkansas, spent $624,480.69 and Pea Ridge School District spent $577,883.06.

But comparing even similarly sized school districts isn’t a valid way to examine the data, and we can’t forget that mass shooters don’t always aim for the biggest schools or cities.

“There are numerous reasons the spending could differ,” Mundell said. “In addition to the number and location of buildings … it could depend on the age and layout of the buildings (more doors, windows, rooms, etc.), the district size, the location of the district in the state and the surrounding community, the availability of and decision to use other safety measures (CSSOs, cameras, etc.), and the agreement with the local law enforcement agency, if any. Each district has unique needs, and trying to compare two just based on a similar number of students is not an accurate comparison.”

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Further, Mundell said, “Some officers are paid by their police department, the salary for some is split between the school and police department, and some schools absorb all the costs associated with police officers/SROs, security officers, and Institutional Police Departments.”

CSSO stands for commissioned school security officers and refers to armed officers who undergo some training, such as private security guards or retired police who work in schools.

Before Arkansas politicians refuse teachers another salary increase and pontificate about the imaginary indoctrination of students, perhaps they should open their ears and their hearts to what these teachers and our children face in Arkansas schools these days. Teaching never was easy, but now teachers and children are risking their lives just by showing up each day.

If you are interested in a specific school district, here is the state-compiled school safety spending chart.