On Alert

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Recent events point up the need for school districts to upgrade campussecurity procedures. But while some have acted by adopting emergencynotification systems, many don't seem to have gotten the message.

On Alert IF ANYONE IN K-12 was proneto forgetting the Columbine killings, themurderous spree carried out by a disgruntledand disturbed student at VirginiaTech earlier this year provided a horrificreminder that schools must give unwaveringattention to campus security.

Lessons learned from a tragedy are never any consolation, but nevertheless many K-12 technologists are wisely responding to new security realities. As a result, the very hottest topic in school security is emergency messaging applications that districts can use to keep all their constituents safe, employing a mix of intercom, telephone, and text messaging to get the word out during a crisis.

Yet all the talk about these systems hasn't yet translated into any large-scale action. According to the K-12 School Safety Index, released this past summer by technology services provider CDW-G, 48 percent of the 381 responding public school districts reported using intercom systems during campus emergencies to convey information to faculty members, while 54 percent said they use phone calls to reach parents. Only 1 percent of districts said they were considering mass notification systems such as text alerts to cell phones.

"Education is a late adopter of mass notification systems," Bob Kirby, CDWG's senior director for K-12 education, says. "Mass notification systems allow districts to instantaneously reach out to any one of a number of pre-selected groups to disseminate information, from first responders to faculty to parents."

CDW-G isn't the only organization to identify K-12's lack of progress in the area of crisis management; the US Government Accountability Office's report to Congress called it out as well. In "Emergency Management: Status of School Districts' Planning and Preparedness," GAO officials highlighted some key problems with school emergency preparedness, estimating that 62 percent of all school districts experience communication hindrances due to lack of equipment, inadequate training for staff, and a dearth of personnel with expertise in the area of emergency planning.

The GAO study stated that districts experience difficulties communicating emergency procedures to parents before, during, and after an incident. Another challenge is interoperability—while many schools use radios on campus, many of these radios operate on different frequencies, disrupting communication in the event of an emergency.

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

Mustang Public Schools (OK) implemented amass notification system last year. Comparing howthe district used to handle emergencies to how itdoes so now demonstrates the dramaticallygreater efficiency of the new system.

THEN: The district's administrative staff would call parents one by one, tying up nearly 20 district phone lines.

NOW: During the district's last lockdown, administrators were able to reach more than 5,600 homes in less than 20 minutes.

At Mustang Public Schools in Oklahoma, technologists have acted to reform the district's emergency communications. Previously, during a crisis, Mustang's administrative staff would hit nearly 20 of the district's phone lines and place calls to parents, one by one. Last year, the district invested in an emergency messaging service from SchoolMessenger.

Technology Director Geromy Schrick says the district has automated the notification system completely and now uses only seven dedicated phone lines with additional off-site capacity for emergency situations. Schrick adds that during the district's last lockdown, administrators were able to reach more than 5,600 homes in less than 20 minutes.

"That's something we never would have been able to do manually," he says. "Plus, since everything is integrated with our student information system, we are constantly ensuring our contact information database for both students and parents is up to date."

Technologists at Kansas' Eudora Schools recently embraced a similar solution from a vendor named SchoolReach, which was tested instantly when a credible bomb threat forced district officials to lock down the school. The superintendent and his colleagues recorded a message to parents indicating that students were safe; the system then automatically called all 1,400 houses in the district and played the message.

Later in the day, administrators sent out a follow-up call informing parents that the suspect was in custody and that there was no additional threat. The follow- up also indicated that after-school activities would proceed as planned.

Superintendent Marty Kobza says the system worked so well that, beginning with the new school year, district officials asked parents to indicate on individual emergency contact forms the specific phone numbers at which they would like SchoolReach to contact them in the event of an emergency.

"We have made the student environment one that is safe and student-friendly, and one that is rich with opportunity," Kobza says.

Rather than focus on applications that allow them to communicate instantly with parents, some school districts such as North Carolina's Whiteville City Schools have opted for tools that enable teachers to contact each other in order to keep tabs on intruders and safeguard the campus.

Whiteville's system exists at the district's primary school, which houses students in prekindergarten through second grade, and revolves around internet protocol intercom technology from Digital Acoustics. Because the district is spread out and includes a number of trailers, the solution enables technologists to place devices in every classroom without breaking the bank on a retrofit.

BYTESIZE

The US Government AccountabilityOffice's report on school districts'emergency preparedness can befound here.

Practically speaking, the system works just like any other intercom unit. Anthony Martin, the district's director of media and technology, says that on a day-to-day basis, school constituents use it as a "squawk box" for announcements. In the event of an emergency or suspicious activity, however, teachers can use the units to supplement the school's 16 surveillance cameras and get ahold of campus offices to tell them what's happening in a classroom at any particular time.

Martin notes that because it is serverbased, the system has a built-in log that records events in case law enforcement needs to play back messages to re-create a timeline. Thankfully, local authorities have not needed to do so yet. When they do, Martin says, Whiteville will be ready for them.

"If an intruder was on campus and a number of teachers called it in, the police would be able to use our archive and piece together a log of where the person was, and when," Martin says. "While the system isn't as good as it could be with, say, 40 cameras, I like to think we've done with best we can with a limited budget, and what we ended up with isn't too bad at all."

Other vendors are in the process of developing newer and more sophisticated emergency management systems. Viyya Technologies, for instance, recently announced plans for its Emergency Alert Information Portal, which will be capable of providing urgent e-mail and short message service (SMS) alerts to students, parents, faculty, and staff members during emergencies.

Message Logix has launched K12Alerts.com, an emergency messaging platform that enables school districts to send realtime urgent messages to parents, residents, and staff via e-mail, text message, fax, and phone. What's more, the service's web-based Parent My Account system allows parents to update their emergency contact information and children's personal information for district, school, or grade broadcasts at any time.

With K-12 districts getting on board with the latest in school security systems, vendors such as Mobile Campus, a text-messaging service designed to enhance communication among higher education customers, are beginning to market to them. Dave Liniado, the company's vice president of university relations, enrollment, and merchant development, says that any effort to spread the word during a time of crisis is always worthwhile. "It never hurts to communicate with your constituents," he says. "The more you inform them, the more informed they'll be."

-Matt Villano is a freelance writer based inHealdsburg, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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