Back to school, with panic buttons: The post-Uvalde scramble
MISSION, Kan. — Melissa Lee comforted her son and daughter after a student opened fire in their suburban Kansas City high school, wounding an administrator and a police officer stationed there.
Then weeks later, she wept for the parents in Uvalde, Texas, who were forced to bury their children after the massacre there in May. She said she was “absolutely” reassured when she learned her district had since purchased one of the panic-alert systems gaining traction nationwide amid a surge in school violence. The technology, featuring wearable panic buttons or mobile phone apps, enables teachers to notify each other and police in the event of 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 hit a button and, OK, we know something’s wrong, you know, really wrong.”
Multiple 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 scramble to beef up school security 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 worried parents ahead of the new school year, but in their haste may be emphasizing the wrong things. It’s “security theater,” said Ken Trump, president 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 ensuring doors aren’t propped open.
The attack in Uvalde illustrated the shortcomings of panic-alert 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 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 frequent alerts related to nearby Border Patrol car chases.
“People want visible, tangible things,” Trump said. “It’s a lot harder to point to the value of training your staff. Those are intangibles, … but they’re most effective.”
In suburban Kansas City, the decision to spend $2.1 million over five years for a system called CrisisAlert “isn’t a knee-jerk reaction,” said Brent Kiger, Olathe Public Schools’ director of safety services. He said he had been eyeing the system even before gunfire erupted in an Olathe high school in March as staff confronted an 18-year-old over rumors that he had a gun in his backpack.