A state governmental task force studying school safety issues made its first stop Thursday in Kirksville, where it heard from local law enforcement officers and other stakeholders.

The Governor’s School Safety Task Force convened in the Kirksville R-III School District’s central office. The panel will make a report and recommendations to Gov. Mike Parson on a number of issues which affect students while they are at school, including mental health, school culture and physical safety.

The task force, composed of representatives from the Missouri School Boards Association, the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the Missouri Department of Mental Health and more, is seeking responses from the public about their concerns and proposed solutions.

“We are in a listen and learn mode,” said Paul Fennewald, senior policy advisor at the Missouri Center for Education Safety.

Several Adair County law enforcement officers shared their thoughts on the issue. Adair County Sheriff Robert Hardwick said the community needs to recognize a variety of contributing factors to school violence, including bullying at school and domestic violence at home.

Hardwick also pointed to what he sees as underutilization of the Missouri School Violence Hotline, which can be used to report incidents and threats of school violence, bullying and weapons offenses. Hardwick said he collected data from the 10 years the hotline has been available to Kirksville, Brashear and Novinger students and found that it had been used only 26 times.

“I think we need to do a better job of letting people know it’s there, make it easier for students to report things, make it easier to report things on their phones because that’s how they communicate,” Hardwick said.

Task force member Sandy Karsten of the Missouri Department of Public Safety said efforts are currently underway to increase public awareness of the hotline, as well as to ensure it is staffed 24-7.

Students can submit anonymous tips to the School Violence Hotline by calling 1-866-748-7047, texting 847411, downloading the MO ReportIt app or visiting schoolviolencehotline.org.

Kirksville Police Department Chief Jim Hughes said the task force members should keep in mind that there will not be one solution that works for all school districts or one solution to all types of school violence.

Hughes also encouraged the panel to avoid solutions that would make school security too draconian.

“I think we have to stop short of making our schools into fortresses,” he said.

Hughes said the focus should be on addressing mental health concerns with students early and often.

“I believe we need to start as early as possible with mental health education, mental health awareness, mental health treatment,” Hughes said.

Hughes also said it should be easier for law enforcement and other agencies to share concerns about people they are working with who seem to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

“If there’s a legitimate purpose for the protection of that person, let alone anyone else, we ought to find a way to communicate with all the agencies that are participating,” Hughes said.

Angela Caraway, chief operating officer at Mark Twain Behavioral Health, shared those concerns and said it can often be difficult for mental health workers to know who to get in touch with if a patient is in crisis.

“What I would ask for in my role in administration of a community mental health center is maybe some guidance as to what our crisis teams are responsible for in terms of evaluating and assessing risks to a school,” Caraway said.

Caraway said it would be helpful to have more standardized guidelines to help decide whether it is safe for a child experiencing mental health problems to return to school.

The task force is seeking responses on prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery regarding all kinds of school violence issues. Fennewald encouraged members of the public to share their recommendations online and said they would be given equal weight with those shared in person. Recommendations can be made online at mosba.org/safety-task-force.