MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Melissa Lee comforted her son and daughter after a student opened fire at her suburban Kansas City high school, wounding an administrator and a police officer stationed there.
Then, weeks later, she cried for parents in Uvalde, Texas, who were forced to bury their children after the massacre in May. She said she was “absolutely” reassured when she learned her district had purchased one of the panic alert systems that are gaining traction across the country amid a wave of school violence that includes shootings and brawls. The technology, with wearable panic buttons or mobile apps, allows teachers to notify each other and the police in an emergency.
“Time is of the essence,” said Lee, whose son helped barricade a classroom door and watched police enter his school with guns drawn. “They can push a button and, OK, we know something is wrong, you know, very wrong. And then it puts everyone on high alert.”
Several states now mandate or encourage buttons, and a growing number of districts are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars per school for them — part of a widespread race to bolster school safety and prevent the next tragedy. The spending spree includes metal detectors, security cameras, vehicle barriers, alarm systems, clear backpacks, bullet-resistant glass and door locking systems.
Critics say school officials are scrambling to show action — any action — to concerned parents ahead of the new school year, but in their haste they may be emphasizing the wrong things. It’s a “theater of security,” said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services.
The attack in Uvalde illustrated the shortcomings of panic alert systems. Robb Elementary School implemented an alert app, and when an intruder approached the school, a school official sent a lockdown alert. But not all teachers received it because of bad Wi-Fi or phones that were turned off or in a drawer, according to a Texas Legislature investigation. And those who did may not have taken it seriously, the Legislature’s report said: The school sent out frequent alerts related to Border Patrol car chases in the area.
“People want things that are visible and tangible,” Trump said. “It is much more difficult to point out the value of coaching your team. Those are intangibles. These are things that are less visible and invisible, but are more effective.”
In suburban Kansas City, the decision to spend $2.1 million over five years for a system called CrisisAlert “is not a knee-jerk reaction,” said Brent Kiger, director of security services at Olathe Public Schools. even before the shooting at an Olathe high school in March, when the team confronted an 18-year-old over rumors he had a gun in his backpack.
“It helped us to assess and analyze it through a lens of, ‘Have we been through this critical incident, and how would it help us?’ And that would have helped us that day,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The system, unlike the one used by Uvalde, allows employees to trigger a lock that will be announced with flashing strobe lights, a takeover of staff computers and a pre-recorded intercom announcement. Teachers can trigger alarms by pressing a button on a wearable badge at least eight times. Staff can also ask for help to break up a fight in the hallway or deal with a medical emergency if they press the button three times.
Demand for CrisisAlert had been growing even before Uvalde, with revenue from new contracts increasing 270% from Q1 2021 to Q1 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 yet. country.
But the idea really gained traction 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 panic buttons. She had texted her daughter when the shots were fired saying help was on the way.
“But in reality, there was no panic button. There was no immediate way to contact the police or emergency services to get to the scene as quickly as possible,” said Lori Kitaygorodsky, a spokeswoman for the group. “We always kind of go along with the thought that time equals life.”
Florida and New Jersey lawmakers responded by passing the Alyssa Act, requiring schools to start using panic alarms. District of Columbia schools have also added panic button technology.
Following Uvalde, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a new bill that would require school districts to consider installing silent panic alarms. And Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt issued an executive order urging all schools to implement panic buttons if they are not already in use. The state previously provided money for schools to sign an application.
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 wave of violence. Data shows that the district recorded 2,377 robberies and batteries from August 2021 to 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 is also putting AR-15 rifles in every school, and the Houston County School District in Georgia.
Walter Stephens, executive director of school operations for Houston County’s 30,000-student district, said the district tested the panic button technology last year at three schools before signing a five-year, $1.7 million contract to make it available in all your buildings.
Like most schools, the district reassessed its safety protocols after the tragedy in Uvalde. But the Texas shooting didn’t provide the impetus to add panic buttons, Stephens insisted. If students don’t feel safe, he said, “it means they don’t perform well in our schools.”
Whether the buttons live up to their promises is something experts are monitoring. In places like Florida, a panic button app has proven to be 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 wreak havoc?
“By throwing so much technology into the problem… we may have unwittingly created a false sense of security,” said Canady.
Kansas State Senator Cindy Holscher represents an area that includes part of the Olathe District, and her 15-year-old son knew the Olathe East shooter. While Holscher, a Democrat, supports the addition of panic buttons in the district, she said schools alone cannot solve the country’s mass shooting problem.
“If we make it too easy for people to get their hands on guns, that’s still an issue,” said Holscher, who has championed a red flag law and another measure that would require the safe storage of firearms. She said none of the measures even had a hearing in the GOP-dominated legislature.
“We have to get to the heart of the matter at some point.”
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