Security radio equipment failures and dead spots that have been identified among New York City’s 260 public high schools could pose a potentially dangerous security risk if not corrected. With more than 4,200 school safety officers patrolling the schools, there is a concern that precious minutes will be lost when an officer calls for help during an emergency.

In Lemon Grove, Calif., a quiet San Diego suburb known best for its claim to have the “best climate on Earth,” parents recently demanded more and quicker information about a strange plot by up to three middle school students to assassinate a teacher.

The use or alleged overuse of handcuffs in the Kent, Wash., School District has recently been the talk of that town. In an attempt to diffuse criticism, school officials have tried to improve communication with parents, students, teachers and residents.

Security personnel for schools in Weston, Mass., recently reported their intention to streamline crisis management, concentrating on an instant school-to-parent notification system.

Streamline communications

Common among these organizations is the need for better, faster communication as part of a total security program. “Communicating during a time of emergency is always a challenge,” said Dave Caccamo, headmaster of Raleigh Latin High School. The school, which opens this year in North Raleigh, N.C., plans to use a Web-based notification system called “Instant Alert for Schools” from Honeywell Building Solutions of Minneapolis to send routine and emergency messages to parents and guardians.

School security executives, much like their colleagues in corporate and commercial organizations, depend on a diversity of communication methods ranging from two-way radios and wireless telephones to intercoms and newer generation notification systems.

Some in the New York school system are seeking additional federal funds to place more radio repeaters around the metropolitan area to boost the reliability of the system’s point-to-point radios. At the same time, New York police, who have responsibility over the school safety officers, are retrofitting existing repeaters with new technology, as well.

The biggest tech trend among school security professionals centers on interactive notification systems that would allow messages to quickly reach parents, guardians, teachers, administrators and law enforcement officials. One example of this trend is the Los Angeles-based Partnership for Academic and Community Excellence, which allows school principals, security executives and administrators to broadcast voice messages through an Internet-based database and dialing system. Using what the organization has termed “school-to-home communications,” phone messages can be sent instantly to thousands of people.

School security personnel can activate the communications system by logging onto a secure Web site and then using a telephone to record messages.

Immediate broadcasts

Some districts have had local corporations sponsor the service. For example, EnvoyWorldWide, an enterprise notification services company based in Bedford, Mass., agreed to sponsor implementation of the Weston school district’s new security communications system. When suspicious incidents or security-related issues arise, Weston school officials will be able to immediately record and broadcast a message to each student’s emergency contacts. “It’s an easy-to-use tool to streamline our crisis management process and to help keep our school community informed on a real-time basis of emergency situations,” said Weston Superintendent Alan Oliff. “Traditionally, we’ve used multiple systems, including auto-dialers and manual outreach to try to advise parents of situations that arise at our schools. We can now communicate about crisis situations on a more effective basis.” Through the management process, the system also validates and updates students’ emergency contact information after each message is broadcast.

The Web-based notification service implemented at Raleigh Latin will allow the school to instantaneously broadcast information about an emergency situation to parents and guardians through the communications devices of their choice. Device options include a home or wireless telephone, e-mail, PDA and/or pager. Headmaster Caccamo adds, “We will be prepared to deliver a single, clear message to parents or guardians within minutes, rather than hours, of a school emergency.” The school can develop an unlimited number of subgroups through the service and send limited or customized messages that are relevant to only particular group.