School safety conference: why districts are adding technology and 911 apps

School districts are increasingly turning to technology for an added layer of protection on their campuses. 

“I don’t know if you can ever say you did enough, you know, especially when you’re talking about student safety,” James McDonald with Boyd ISD said. “It’s a constantly evolving program.” 

McDonald says when his district, which has just more than 1,300 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, updated their school safety measures, several components came to mind. Their buildings have cameras, educators are trained in mental health first aid and they also have a school resource officer. Investing in Share911, he says, was to implement safety communications. 

“Fortunately, we’ve been blessed for only having to use it for our training purposes right now,” he said. “We had an extensive time in the fall training our staff over using Share911.” 

“The simpler you can keep it, that makes it easier for them to adapt and make it become a habit,” he said. 

Share911 is a mobile and desktop-enabled program which allows people inside a school to share information with first responders. They can report whether they need security, if there’s a threat nearby, fire or smoke, medical emergency or other secure options. Districts can tailor alerts to fit their needs, so all campuses use the same language when reporting an incident, CEO Erik Endress said.  

Endress, who serves as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey and has experience with technology, said he saw the need to form a program like this where response times are minimized.  

“When our system’s activated, not only do they notify their co-workers, they’re also notifying police who also have this on their own phone in the car,” he said. 

Schools turn to apps, other tech to guard against shootings

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Schools trying to protect kids from mass shootings are turning to gunshot detection systems, cellphone apps and artificial intelligence — a high-tech approach designed to reduce the number of victims.

Technology that speeds up law enforcement’s response and quickly alerts teachers and students to danger is a growing tool amid rising concerns over the inability to prevent shootings like the one last week at a suburban Denver high school. An 18-year-old student who rushed one of the gunmen died.

While a focus on gun control often emerges after school shootings, technology can be a less partisan solution that’s quick to implement — though some experts say funding preventive mental health resources should be the priority.

“We’ve kind of reached this state of frustration where we (feel like we) can’t protect our students,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “What we’re trying to do is find some technological fix, and there isn’t one.”

Districts nationwide are recognizing that and instituting an approach that combines technology with mental health programs, bullying prevention and security officers.

“If I’m intent on shooting people at a school, there are 20 ways to do it,” said Erik Endress, CEO of Share911, a New Jersey-based company with an app that allows staff to immediately report to colleagues and police everything from medical conditions to active shooters.

“We can improve the outcome of these situations,” Endress said. “We can minimize the casualty count.”

While school attacks are relatively rare, they have been among the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

The 1999 massacre of 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, ushered in a new era of school security but the carnage continued, including 27 people killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and 17 deaths last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Joseph Erardi, a retired Newtown superintendent who came to the district a year after the shooting, said lawmakers pressed for “hardening” infrastructure at schools.

That has spurred a billion-dollar industry where companies manufacture products from “ballistic attack-resistant” doors to smoke cannons. The hardening market, as well as lobbying efforts to get taxpayer dollars to fund upgrades, had stalled in recent years but rekindled after the Parkland shooting.

Now many schools, like the Beverly Hills Unified School District, are combining that kind of hardware with more high-tech solutions and therapeutic programs.

“That’s like the Number 1 concept of security for any principal: physical security and emotional security of children,” said Juliet Fine, principal at Horace Mann School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

Beverly Hills is among 200 U.S. school districts using the Share911 app. The board of education added it and other measures, including armed security officers, following the Parkland shooting.

In the fall, the district will add a central command center that will monitor feeds from all the district’s surveillance cameras and use software to monitor keywords in online search traffic for potential threats.

“Safety in schools is evolving. Technology and software, like in all aspects of the modern world, need to be utilized and used,” said Christopher Hertz, district director of school safety. “We want our kids to feel and be safe. ... If we do all this, then our teachers can do what they need to do.”

Wealthier areas have not been immune to violence. Horace Mann parents and teachers stressed that they and students feel safe within the walled campus, and not just because it’s in an exclusive area.

“I’m grateful I live in this community that has so much security, and I know they are protected,” Evelyn Lahiji, 42, said as she picked up her sons, Lorenzo Naghdechi, 8, and Leonardo Naghdechi, 9.

Christina Richner, 45, said her 6-year-old son, Julian, and 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, have gone through so many emergency drills that “their reflexes will kick in” during a shooting.

The students are trained to gather in a corner with the classroom’s lights out and blinds drawn in a lockdown, social studies teacher Laura Stark said. Staffers check in via the Share911 app to share information, including if any kids are missing or injured.

Share911 launched three weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting. The app provides real-time data to school employees and law enforcement, such as the type of threat and its location, based on floor plans of the building.

“You can’t decide if you’re going to run, hide or fight in the absence of information,” said Endress, the CEO.

AmberBox, an indoor gunshot detection product that looks like a smoke detector, has a similar philosophy. It alerts school officials and law enforcement the moment a shot is fired and maps the location.

The system uses sensors that track a gun’s muzzle flash and a bullet’s shockwave, CEO James Popper said.

Chicago-based Aegis AI is refining technology to identify a gun as soon as it enters an area that a camera is scanning. The company was incorporated a year ago and still is working to minimize false alarms, such as when the software flags a staple gun or drill, CEO Sonny Tai said. Most of its clients are in a pilot program.

Some experts are concerned that districts are embracing technology to allay public concern while taking money away from mental health programs and violence-prevention efforts.

“It’s something you can show. I can go to a board meeting and hold up this shiny thing,” said Amy Klinger, co-founder of The Educator’s School Safety Network and a former teacher and school administrator in Ohio.

Despite the advances in both safety technology and mental health programs, experts say there’s no foolproof way to predict or stop a shooting. Wealthy, suburban districts like Beverly Hills that can afford the latest innovations face as much risk as inner-city schools where metal detectors have been commonplace for years.

“Nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen there,” Endress said. “Well, it’s happening everywhere.”

Meet the technology that is changing school security

A ski-masked, gun-brandishing robber had just held up his second cab driver in five hours on the morning of March 12 and was fleeing the scene of the crime, just blocks from Keyport High School. Borough police chief Butch Casaletto pulled out his cell phone and with two clicks an alert flashed on the smartphones of nearly every district employee: they were instructed to initiate lockdown procedures.

"I can say that this system was a great asset as the school was placed in lockdown by me when we realized that the threat was heading in the direction of the school," Casaletto said. No danger ever reached the school and the suspect was arrested later that night.

This system, Share911, can be found in hundreds of schools nationwide, including 79 buildings in Monmouth and Ocean counties. It was developed by OnScene Technologies Inc., a Ramsey, N.J.-based start-up led by Adrian Lanning, a developer who built the program, Ray Bailey, a former deputy police chief, and Erik Endress, a 30-year volunteer firefighter.

Share911, which Endress says has a patent pending, is a service sold to clients — almost entirely schools at this point, but they have plans to branch out commercially — that provides for two-way communication within an exclusive network, such as school staff, and first-responders.

Not only can any member of the network immediately put a school in lockdown, but they can tell each other during an evacuation that a child is missing or that an intruder just walked pass their door or that they are injured in a particular room. It's that type of interactivity that differentiates Share911 from reverse-911 technology and makes the rescue response more efficient, Endress said.

"What if the people inside the building could use their mobile device to say 'This is where I'm trapped' or 'This is where I'm injured' or 'This is where I saw the bad guy'?" he said of the questions they asked themselves during the product's development. "That would save a lot of time for police and firefighters to know where people are trapped or where the bad guy is."

This crisis communications technology "is rapidly gaining momentum," said Anthony Gentile, the CEO of the Center for Private Security and Safety at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who reworked Newton (Conn.) Public Schools security measures after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre in 2012.

"Awareness and response continue to be most concerning during an emergency and this product is most helpful in reducing that time line," he said.

Area school leaders are praising Share911 as a relatively low-cost and integral part of their security plan.

"Most of the stuff we do for security at schools ... is about delaying (intruders), delaying an event to minimize the damage that can occur before police can get there," said John Marciante, superintendent at Manalapan-Englishtown Regional Schools. "This is the first thing we can do that isn't focused on delaying an event from happening but on increasing the response speed."

"In a real life situation, you just feel so disconnected, not knowing what's going on," said EvaMarie Raleigh, superintendent of Beach Haven Schools. "(With Share911), our staff feels confident, relaxed, they're not frightened."

The service costs about $3 per school employee per month, meaning that a tiny district like Beach Haven pays less than $500 per year for the service, while the 5,000-student Manalapan-English district would spend nearly $25,000 annually.

The traditional paradigm allows only a few administrators the power to put a school in lockdown, while technology like Share911 works best if the first person — be it principal, teacher or custodian — who spots a danger can activate a lockdown.

Gentile says that wide degree of access can lead to false alarms and "anxious moments" for parents and staff, but Endress notes he can count on one hand the number of "accidental" activations. There haven't been any reports of unauthorized use — like a student grabbing a teacher's phone and starting a panic — and Endress said the website is as impenetrable to hackers "as your bank account."