Tornado and fire drills have long been a way of life for students at public schools. But in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting that left 27 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary, one Arkansas state senator wants to make active shooter drills a part of the mix.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, has introduced SB140 that would make active shooter drills a mandatory exercise at all Arkansas public schools. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Education Committee.
"My bill requires that instead of one of their fire drills, this puts (an active shooter drill) in its place," she said.
Irvin said administrators and some teachers would receive training on how to conduct drills, along with local law enforcement agencies. She said there was no reason to not have active shooter drills in place.
"The idea behind this bill is when you practice being prepared, you are able to react quickly and hopefully save lives," Irvin said.
Irvin said she was hopeful the bill, which will be before the Senate Committee on Education next Wednesday (March 6), would be approved so schools would receive necessary training, but also so new safety systems could be implemented.
Included in the bill is funding that would install a radio in each school that would tie into the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWINs).
PUSH BUTTON SYSTEM
The system, Irvin said, would connect schools and law enforcement agencies around the state, allowing them to know instantly what a situation was within a school during an active shooter or other emergency situation.
"As soon as they push the button at that school, the whole state's notified," she said, adding that the system would also notify police if the person with the radio was shot.
The cost of the training would run the state nearly $700,000, while the cost of radio installation would be around $4.2 million, Irvin said.
"When you're looking at a $300 million surplus (in the state budget), I'm going to advocate for it," she said.
Having a uniform training system in place is something advocated by Dr. Randy Barrett, superintendent of the Gentry School District.
"With no legislation in place, all of our training is home grown," he said.
Barrett said districts were required to have crisis plans in place, but active shooter drills were left to the discretion of districts.
"We have done (active shooter drills) before, but we have not actually had a full-scale drill this year," he said.
Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of the Fort Smith School District, said his district has been a leader in training for emergency scenarios, such as active shooter situations.
"We have a uniform code designation that all of our employees have and when we announce a code red or a code yellow, our staff are trained to know exactly what to do," he said. "An active shooter would fall into one of those categories."
He said part of the district's training and preparation included staff training with the Fort Smith Police Department.
"They have been (doing drills) with them. It involves the SWAT team or first responders coming into the building with guns blazing," he said, adding that police sometimes fire blank bullets and use other methods while training during non-school hours.
He said the district also performs lockdown drills regularly, many times because of real-life situations occurring near schools such as police chases.
Gooden said in its present form, he supports Irvin's bill.
"This isn't going to be a new thing to us," he said, adding that the bill would be beneficial to some smaller schools in rural areas who maybe are not as organized with emergency preparedness as Fort Smith is."
Another district who says it is leading the way is the Clarksville School District.
Superintendent Dr. David Hopkins said his district not only performs active shooter drills, but it does evacuation drills, as well.
"We do drills where our students get on busses," he said. "Our bus drivers know where they're going to go. But we try to keep to ourselves because we don't want to stage someone out. We try to keep it kind of under wraps."
Hopkins said that much like what would be required in SB140, his district had great working relationships with the Clarksville Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff's Department.
He said working with both departments allowed the district to have good partners when preparing for worst-case scenarios.
While Arkansas is attempting to strengthen training in preparation for active shooters, a school district just 25 miles west of Fort Smith may stop lockdown drills and active shooter drills.
According to Superintendent Scott Farmer of Sallisaw Public Schools, Oklahoma mandates lockdown drills twice per year in order for schools to keep accreditation. He said the drills are good for his students and staff.
"We feel that it's beneficial to be ready for crisis," he said.
Farmer said the potential dropping of the drills was tied to a measure in Oklahoma's legislature that would deregulate some accreditation requirements as a way to save money.
"State revenue is so low in our state that schools are (struggling)," he said. "Our district alone has seen a $1.1 million decrease in foundation and salary incentive aid."
Back in Arkansas, Barrett said protecting the lives of his students in Gentry is well worth whatever cost may come with drills.
"Being required by code to stop and make sure that we've examined what we're doing and guaranteeing the welfare of our students has been thought about, I don't have a personal problem with it," he said. "As unthinkable as it is, training is needed to be prepared for an armed intruder."