Back to school, with panic buttons: The post-Uvalde scramble

Back to school, with panic buttons: The post-Uvalde scramble

MISSION, Kan. (AP) – Melissa Lee comforted her son and daughter after a student opened fire at their suburban Kansas City high school, wounding an administrator and a police officer stationed there.

Then, weeks later, she cried for the parents in Uvalde, Texas, who were forced to bury their children after the massacre there in May. She said she was “absolutely” relieved to learn her district has since purchased one of the panic alert systems that are gaining traction nationwide amid a surge in school violence that includes shootings and fights. The technology, with portable panic buttons or mobile phone apps, allows teachers to notify each other and the police in the event of an emergency.

“Time is of the essence,” said Lee, whose son helped block a classroom door and watched as police entered his school with guns drawn. “They can push a button and, OK, we know something’s wrong, you know, really wrong. And then it puts everyone else on high alert.”

Several states now mandate or encourage the buttons, and a growing number of districts are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars per school for them — part of a widespread fight to improve school security and prevent the next tragedy. The spending spree includes metal detectors, security cameras, vehicle barriers, alarm systems, transparent backpacks, bulletproof glass and door locking systems.

Critics say school officials are scrambling to show action — any action — to worried parents before the new school year, but in their haste they may be highlighting the wrong things. This is “safety theater,” said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services. Instead, he said, schools should focus on making sure teachers implement basic safety protocols such as ensuring doors are not swung open.

The attack in Uvalde illustrated the shortcomings of panic warning systems. Robb Elementary School implemented an alert program, and when an attacker approached the school, a school employee did send a lockdown alert. But not all teachers received it because of poor Wi-Fi or phones that were turned off or in a drawer, according to an investigation by the Texas Legislature. And those who did may not have taken it seriously, the Legislature’s report said: The school sent out regular alerts related to Border Patrol car chases in the area.

“People want visible, tangible things,” Trump said. “It’s much harder to show the value of training your staff. These are intangible things. These are things that are less visible and invisible, but they are the most effective.”

In suburban Kansas City, the decision to spend $2.1 million over five years on a system called CrisisAlert is “not a knee-jerk reaction,” said Brent Kiger, Olathe Public Schools’ director of safety services. system even before gunfire erupted at an Olathe high school in March when staff confronted an 18-year-old over rumors he had a gun in his backpack.

“It kind of helped us evaluate it and look at it through a lens of, ‘We’ve been through this critical incident, and how would that have helped us?’ And that would have helped us that day,” he said. “There’s just no question about it.”

The system, different from what Uvalde relied on, allows staff to trigger a lockdown that will be announced with flashing strobe lights, a takeover of staff computers and a pre-recorded intercom announcement. Teachers can turn off the alarms by pressing a button on a portable badge at least eight times. Staff can also call for help to break up a hallway fight or deal with a medical emergency by pressing the button three times.

Demand for CrisisAlert grew even ahead of Uvalde, with revenue from new contracts rising 270% from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, the product’s maker, Centegix, said in a statement.

Arkansas was an early adopter of panic buttons, announcing in 2015 that more than 1,000 schools would be equipped with a smartphone app that quickly connects users to 911. At the time, education officials said the plan was the most comprehensive in the country.

But the idea really gained steam after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was among the 17 killed, founded the group Make Our Schools Safe and began advocating for panic buttons. She texted her daughter as shots rang out that help was on the way.

“But in reality there was no panic button. There was no immediate way to contact law enforcement or emergency services to get to the site as soon as possible,” said Lori Kitaygorodsky, the group’s spokeswoman. “We always think that time equals life.”

Legislators in Florida and New Jersey responded by passing Alyssa’s Law, which required schools to begin using panic alarms. District of Columbia Schools also added panic button technology.

Following Uvalde, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a new bill requiring school districts to consider installing silent panic alarms. And Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order calling on all schools to implement panic buttons if they aren’t already in use. The state previously provided money to schools to subscribe to an app.

Over the years, legislation has also been introduced in Nebraska, Texas, Arizona and Virginia, according to Make Our Schools Safe.

Las Vegas schools also decided to add panic buttons this year to deal with a spate of violence. Data shows the district recorded 2,377 assaults and batteries from August 2021 through the end of May, including an after-school attack that left a teacher injured and unconscious in her classroom. Other districts adding back-to-school panic buttons include Madison County Schools in North Carolina, which also puts AR-15 rifles in every school, and the Houston County School District in Georgia.

Walter Stephens, the executive director of school operations in the 30,000-student Houston County district, said the district piloted the panic button technology in three schools last year before signing a $1.7 million, five-year contract to roll it out to all its buildings. to make available.

Like most schools, the district re-examined its safety protocols after the tragedy in Uvalde. But the Texas shooting didn’t provide the impetus to add the panic buttons, Stephens insisted. If students don’t feel safe, he said, “that means they’re not performing well in our schools.”

Whether the buttons deliver as promised is something experts monitor. In places like Florida, a panic button app is unpopular with teachers. And what happens, asked Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, in the event of a false alarm, or a student using a panic button to cause chaos?

“By throwing so much technology at the problem … we may have inadvertently created a false sense of security,” Canady said.

Kansas State Sen. Cindy Holscher represents an area that includes part of Olathe County, and her 15-year-old son knew the Olathe East shooter. While Holscher, a Democrat, supports adding panic buttons in the district, she said schools alone cannot solve the nation’s mass shooting problem.

“If we make it way too easy for people to get their hands on guns, that’s still a problem,” said Holscher, who championed a red flag law and another measure that would have required safe firearms storage. She said neither measure even got a hearing in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

“At some point we have to get to the heart of the issue.”


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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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