Safer schools? Metro schools investing thousands in security devices
A national school safety expert calls wearable panic buttons and other such items, “security theater.”
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - “We have to do everything we can to ensure that we’re not the next Uvalde.”
Those powerful words came from Fulton County Schools (FCS) Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney. He’s referring to last year’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, where 19 students and two teachers were killed.
It’s part of the reason FCS has begun investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new technology. But will these high-tech efforts actually lead to safer schools?
In Fulton County, every school is equipped with video surveillance, school resource officers and flock safety cameras, which scan the license plates of cars as they enter school grounds and run them against a criminal database to determine if the car is stolen or if the owner is banned from FCS property.
“We’ve adapted a long-term strategy to make sure our buildings are as safe as they possibly can be,” Looney said.
Most recently, FCS has begun giving employees wearable badges by Centegix that double as panic buttons.
Looney explained a three-time push might be used for a medical emergency, such as if a student is choking. But if the staff member continues pushing the button, that signifies a worst-case scenario and 911 is automatically notified.
“It gives an exact geolocation of where the button was pushed so police officers and staff members can go to where the problem is right away, rather than guessing,” Looney said.
Eventually, every FCS staffer will have a Centegix wearable badge. At a recent FCS employee training event, a Centegix trainer said, “The power of the badge is to wear it. If you wear it, you are protected.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“There’s a difference between feeling safer and actually being safer,” said Ken Trump, a national school safety security expert.
Trump called wearable panic buttons, ballistic whiteboards and bulletproof backpacks nothing more than “security theater.”
“We’re seeing schools invest more and more on shiny objects that they can point to and tell the public see your schools are safer,” Trump added.
In reality, Trump said an alert, well-trained staff is far more valuable than a new piece of technology. After serving as an expert witness in the civil cases that followed the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, Trump said there’s one common thread.
“They all involve after-the-fact allegations of failures of human factors; people, policy, procedures and training, not failures of security, hardware, products and technology,” he said.
The Douglas County School System began using Centegix badges in 2019. The Cobb County School District began using them last year, and the DeKalb County Board of Education recently approved their purchase.
As Liam Gower starts each school day at Riverwood High School in Fulton County, a familiar feeling follows.
“It can happen anytime, it can happen any moment,” he said.
According to a recent report released by the National Center for Education Statistics, 93 school shootings took place during the 2020-21 school year, the highest number recorded since the organization began tracking two decades ago.
Gower said he doesn’t feel unsafe at school, but he has imagined how he would defend himself if he came face-to-face with a gunman.
“Taking whatever is next to you and using it as a weapon, like a chair or something, ‘cause there’s really nothing much else you can do,” Gower said.
Gower said active shooter drills at his school don’t put his mind at ease because a school shooter could be a classmate.
“So that’s always the scariest part ‘cause it’s someone in the room and they’re doing the same drill,” he said.
While some school districts are already using alert systems that can connect to emergency services, silent panic alarms could soon be required in all Georgia schools.
A bill titled ‘Alyssa’s Law’ — named after 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, who was killed in the Parkland, Florida shooting — is currently making its way through the House.
If passed, public elementary and secondary school buildings in Georgia would be required to be equipped with silent panic alarms that can notify law enforcement, in the event of a school shooter or emergency.
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