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

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 who were there.

Then, weeks later, she wept for 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 had since purchased one of the panic alert systems that has gained traction nationwide amid a surge in school violence that includes shots and fights. The technology, which includes 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 barricade a classroom door and saw police enter the school with guns drawn. “They can push a button and, OK, we know something’s wrong, you know, very wrong. And then it puts everybody else on high alert.”

Several states now require 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 bolster school safety and prevent the next tragedy. The expense includes metal detectors, security cameras, vehicle barriers, alarm systems, transparent backpacks, bullet-resistant glass and door locking systems.

Critics say school officials are scrambling to show concerned parents action — any action — before the new school year begins, but in their haste they may be emphasizing the wrong things. It’s a “security theater,” said Ken Trump, chairman of the National School Safety and Security Services. Instead, he said, schools should focus on making sure teachers are implementing basic safety protocols, such as making sure doors aren’t left open.

The attack in Uvalde illustrated the shortcomings of panic warning systems. Robb Elementary School had implemented an alert app, and when an attacker approached the school, a school employee sent a lockdown alert. But not all teachers received it because of poor Wi-Fi or phones 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 frequent alerts related to Border Patrol car chases in the area.

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

Outside 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 public school safety services for Olathe. He said he had been watching the 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 helped us evaluate it and look at it through a lens of, ‘We went through this critical incident, and how would it have helped us?’ And it would have helped us that day,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

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

Demand for CrisisAlert had been growing even before Uvalde, with new contract revenue up 270% from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, the product’s maker, Centegix, said in a communicated

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 to say that the plan was the most complete in the country.

But the idea gained traction after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, 14, was among the 17 killed, founded the group Make Our Schools Safe and began advocating for panic buttons. She had texted her daughter as shots rang out that help was on the way.

“But there really was no panic button. There was no immediate way to contact law enforcement or emergency services to get to the scene as quickly as possible,” said Lori Kitaygorodsky, spokeswoman of the group “We always think that time equals life.”

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

After 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, asking all schools to implement panic buttons if they aren’t already in use. The state previously provided money for schools to sign up for 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. The 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 is also putting AR-15 rifles in all schools, and the Houston County School District in Georgia .

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

Like most schools, the district reevaluated 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, “that translates into them not doing well in our schools.”

Experts are monitoring whether the buttons perform as promised. In places like Florida, a panic button app has proven unpopular with teachers. And what happens, asked Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, in the case 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’s district, and her 15-year-old son knew the Olathe East shooter. While Holscher, a Democrat, supports adding panic buttons to the district, he said schools alone cannot solve the nation’s mass shooting problem.

“If we make it too easy for people to get their hands on guns, it’s still a problem,” said Holscher, who has championed a red flag law and another measure that would have mandated the safe storage of guns by fire He said neither measure even got a hearing in the GOP-dominated Legislature. “We have to get to the heart of the matter at some point.”

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