Back to school, with panic buttons: The struggle after Uvalde

AMISSION, Kan. (AP) — Melissa Lee comforted her son and daughter after a student opened fire at the suburban Kansas City high school, wounding a principal and a police officer who were there.

Then, weeks later, she cried 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 that her district had since purchased one of the panic alarm systems that is gaining traction across the country amid an uptick in school violence that includes shootings and fights. The technology, which features portable panic buttons or mobile phone apps, allows teachers to alert each other and the police in the event of an emergency.

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

Many states now mandate or encourage the buttons, and a growing number of districts are paying tens of thousands of dollars per school for them — part of a broader fight to boost school safety and prevent the next tragedy. The spending spree includes metal detectors, security cameras, vehicle barriers, alarm systems, transparent backpacks, bullet-proof glass and door locking systems.

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

The Uvalde attack demonstrated the weaknesses of panic alarm systems. Robb Elementary School had implemented an alert app, and when an intruder approached the school, a school employee sent out 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 frequent alerts about 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 intangibles. These are things that are less visible and invisible, but they are more 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, director of safety services for Olathe Public Schools. system even before shootings erupted at an Olathe high school in March, as staff confronted an 18-year-old over rumors he had a gun in his backpack.

“It helped us kind of evaluate it and look at it through the 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 just no doubt about it.”

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

Demand for CrisisAlert was growing even before Uvalde, with new contract revenue growing 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 connects users quickly 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 had 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 scene as quickly as possible,” said Lori Kitaygorodsky, a spokeswoman for the group. “We always believe that time equals life.”

Lawmakers in Florida and New Jersey responded by passing Alice’s Law, which required schools to begin using panic alarms. District of Columbia schools also added panic 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 calling on all schools to implement panic buttons if they aren’t already in use. The state previously provided money to 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 surge in violence. The data shows the district recorded 2,377 assaults and batteries from August 2021 through the end of May, including an after-school assault 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 places 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 last year at three schools before signing a five-year, $1.7 million contract to make it available at all her buildings.

Like most schools, the district reevaluated its safety protocols after the Uvalde tragedy. 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 performing well in our schools.”

Whether the buttons perform as promised is something the experts are watching. In places like Florida, a panic button implementation has proven 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 adding so much technology to the problem … we may have inadvertently created a false sense of security,” Canady said.

Kansas state Sen. Cindy Holscher represents a district 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 to the district, she 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 championed a red flag law and another measure that would have mandated safe storage of firearms. He said none of the measures 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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For more back-to-school coverage, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/back-to-school

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

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