Archived Story

Schools update lockdown devices to improve safety

Published 9:34am Friday, March 14, 2014

ST. CLOUD  — Principal Charlie Eisenreich has the power to lock down Apollo High School. It comes with the job — but now it’s literally at the touch of a button.

Eisenreich and five others will soon begin carrying devices giving them the ability to trigger an instantaneous lockdown at that building.

It’s all part of an upgraded safety and warning system aimed at shaving seconds off responses with earlier lockdown notifications that alert essential law enforcement and district officials and warn anyone outside the school of a serious situation inside.

Blue lights newly installed at every entrance are meant to prevent more people from entering the building.

A school bus driver who arrived late at Apollo and noticed blue lights flashing atop the school, for example, could turn the bus around instead of dropping 30 additional kids off into a state of emergency. Or a teacher who had gone out to lunch would know not to re-enter the building.

Apollo is the first St. Cloud school to receive the upgrade, according to Bryan Brown, the district’s supervisor of buildings and grounds. He said that’s because it’s the district’s largest building and has high traffic as the district’s headquarters is housed there.

Brown has been with the district for 24 years and is overseeing the implementation of the $9,000 system that district employees installed at Apollo last month. The new system is monitored by All State Communications for $16 per month.

The school’s current system requires a 911 call from someone in the building. Then emergency operators call the administration office back, and a phone tree is used to notify law enforcement and school administration.

If a police officer is in a meeting with his or her radio off, he or she may not hear the call.

“Now with this new system, it notifies the office and police department and key personnel at the building all at one time,” Brown said.

When an administrator or school resource officer initiates that alarm, the police department is notified, a specific list of school administrators and police officers receives a text message and those blue lights start flashing.

“We are trying to protect not only our students and staff on the inside but we are also trying to protect the public on the outside of the building,” Brown said.

The system went live Tuesday, Brown said, and performed well in its first test. Apollo still needs upgrades to its public address system, but once those updates are complete, the PA will emit a recorded emergency message when triggered.

All St. Cloud schools will eventually have the same system.

School security consultant Ken Trump, who consults on a national scale and has worked in the field for 30 years, says education and awareness will be two of the most important factors in the success of a system like Apollo’s.

“Well, I certainly don’t see anything wrong with doing it,” he said. “There are a number of implementation questions that have to be considered.”

He said many districts have been quick to bolster technology in the wake of school shootings but not necessarily staff preparedness training. These technology investments — cameras, lights, locked doors — can create an over-reliance on equipment and contribute to unrealistic safety expectations while fostering complacent attitudes, Trump says.

“The devil is usually in the details of implementation,” Trump said.

How the public will be educated makes a difference, Trump said.

And even if members of the public are aware of the system, there’s the question of whether they will notice it on any given day.

“Staff and students may be easily taught what that means,” Trump said. “It’s a lot harder when you talk about parents, people who have legitimate business at the school.”

Trump notes there are many people who do legitimate day-to-day business in schools — from vendors to substitute teachers to visitors — who wouldn’t necessarily know how the system works.

Trump warns that bolstering technology is only as good as the people in and around it and their ability to understand and abide by its rules.

For example, he said, a school may have locked doors on the exterior, but a vendor who has access to the school and props open a door or unknowingly allows someone in negates the security of the locked doors.

“… There’s always that people aspect that’s going to override the technology,” he cautioned. “I think you have to set some reasonable expectations as to what you’re going to get out of that (type of system).”

“At best, this is one extra tool in what hopefully is a comprehensive approach to school safety,” Trump said.

Apollo has signs at every entrance explaining in English not to enter the building if the blue lights are flashing.

Brown says the accompanying picture is meant to explain the system to anyone who cannot read English.

St. Cloud Police Sgt. Brett Mushatt oversees the district’s school resource officers. He says this system won’t change the way the police respond to incidents but could help them learn of incidents sooner.

Mushatt says those moments between when the alarm is initiated and when 20 squad cars arrive may be when the blue lights are most effective.

Brown agrees, noting that staff members returning from lunch or students outside during gym would know not to re-enter the building even though things would appear normal from the outside.

The basic message the public needs to know, says Brown:

“If they come up to the building and see blue lights flashing, stay away from the building.”