PEARCY, Ark. – The nation’s top law enforcement official discussed some big issues in Arkansas Wednesday.
The topic U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions devoted the most time to was school safety.
“We want to make sure no child is in fear, and no parent is in fear for their children in school,” Sessions told a panel of federal, state and local school and law enforcement officials at Lake Hamilton High School.
Sessions listened to what the school district has been doing for 25 years to ensure that.
“We know we’re not U.S. Navy SEALs, we know we’re not professional law enforcement officers,” said Superintendent Steve Anderson. “But by golly, we’re a long ways from Barney Fife, too.”
Anderson, along with a handful of other staff members who are not teachers or principals, serve as commissioned school security officers.
After 60 hours of training and 24 additional hours every two years, they can conceal carry alongside several uniform security to protect nearly 5,000 people on campus.
“If something were to happen here, we’re going to react to protect our babies,” Anderson said. “We want them to go home at night.”
These staff members are the first on scene during an active shooter situation, while help from professional law enforcement is on the way.
“That’s 20 or 30 minutes of someone in our buildings shooting at our children,” Anderson said. “We’re not willing to take that chance.”
However, protesters outside during the panel discussion argue there is a better chance for a good guy’s gun getting in the wrong hands than a bad guy with a gun shooting up a school.
“Having a gun in a classroom is just asking for a student to get ahold of the gun,” said Daniel Schrader, a future teacher.
“There can be accidents, there can be mistakes,” said Kelly Reyes, an El Dorado public school teacher.
There can also be more than one solution.
“One thing that was said loud and clear was give schools the opportunity to develop programs that are best for their district for their particular needs,” said U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, who worked to bring Sessions to his district.
That applies from the state to the federal level, as Sessions takes a model Westerman said he found very impressive back to Washington.
“We rely on you, those at this school and at state and local departments, to tell us what works best when it comes to protecting children,” Sessions said.
Two months ago, the attorney general announced the department of justice’s first grants under the Stop School Violence Act, which will provide $50 million to train teachers and students to stop school violence and to develop threat reporting systems. He has also dedicated another $25 million to improve training and emergency reporting.
About the time when President Trump established a federal school safety commission in response to the Parkland mass shooting, Gov. Asa Hutchinson established a state one.
Hutchinson, along with several commission members, told Sessions about the recommendations they recently released, which includes an armed presence on every campus and changing a state law to make sure school counselors spend more time with students and less time on paperwork.
Earlier Wednesday, Sessions was in Little Rock at U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland’s office, calling for legislative fixes in Congress and the Arkansas legislature to the Armed Career Criminal Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down several years ago, after it was on the books for 30 years.
Sessions said 1,400 violent criminals have been released, including 18 in Arkansas. Of those, 600 have been rearrested an average of three times.
“When the sentence is uncertain, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance and hold out,” Sessions said. “The certainty of a significant and fixed sentence helps us get criminals to hand over their crime bosses, the kingpins and the cartel leaders. It helps remove entire gangs of criminals from our streets.”
Sessions said U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, is currently working on legislation along these lines but would not elaborate.