Latest Move in School Safety? A Panic Button.

Not all emergencies give people the time or ability to call 911. One Georgia city has installed panic buttons in all of its schools, and similar plans have been introduced in California and New Jersey.
by | April 1, 2013 AT 4:00 AM

It's a nightmare scenario for any school: A shooter forces his way onto the premises and opens fire. But if such an event were to happen at one of the 14 public and private schools in Marietta, Ga., teachers and administrators can now press a panic button that directly alerts the authorities.

The idea of a panic button had been in discussion in Marietta for a while, says David Baldwin, an officer at the Marietta Police Department, but the December tragedy in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 elementary school students dead, put the policy on a fast track. Installation of the buttons, which cost about $5,000 altogether, began in January. Installation and testing are now complete, and the buttons are ready to use -- although adminstrators hope they never have to.

“Newtown really accelerated a lot of things. Things that might have been a little further down the road were pushed to the front of the line,” Baldwin says. “One of those things was the panic buttons.”

The Marietta police department isn’t releasing the exact number or locations of the panic buttons that were installed. But they have been outfitted with protections to make sure they aren’t accidentally pressed, Baldwin says, and the buttons are located in places where only teachers and administrators can access them.

The buttons operate on a dedicated, direct line to the Marietta police dispatch unit. Once the dispatcher receives a signal, he or she has been instructed to send all available units to the school. The buttons should make it easier for school staff to get in touch with the police when a more traditional 911 phone call might not be feasible, Baldwin says. The police department conducted extensive training with school staff on proper usage of the buttons, although Baldwin again declined to identify exactly what kinds of situations would warrant their use.

“In the midst of any emergency situation, you're not going to have time to pick up a phone and call 911,” he says. “This way, the cavalry is already on its way.”

Marietta isn’t the only place where schools have looked to panic buttons to beef up school security after Newtown. The Glendale, Calif., school district announced in late February that it would soon begin installing alert buttons at its 30 school campuses. The Maine Emergency Management Agency is currently accepting applications for schools to apply for up to $5,000 in state funds to install buttons. Bills have been introduced in California and New Jersey that would mandate the installation of panic buttons statewide. The New Jersey bill requires a button in every school, as Marietta has done; the California bill goes a step further and calls for a button in each individual classroom.

Since the Newtown massacre, conversations on improving school safety have led to a number of proposals, including arming teachers themselves, which Indiana is currently considering. Those sorts of ideas have been rebuffed by teachers unions like the National Education Association (NEA), which generally support greater gun control and improved mental health access. The NEA doesn't have a specific position on panic buttons, says Marc Egan, deputy director of government relations at the NEA, but the group would oppose statewide mandates like the ones being considered in California and New Jersey.

“Facility upgrades can be a part of improving school safety, but this really is a good example of decisions that ought to be made at the building level,” Egan says. "What we don't want to see is a mandate at the state level, where you move in a direction that you're turning schools into fortresses. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that schools are still very, very safe places to be.”

In Marietta, the panic buttons are viewed as one piece of a broader plan for school safety, says Dayton Hibbs, assistant superintendent for the school district. The police department has also held active shooter training with school staff, and the district has refined its school entry policies, moving to all-digital card readers instead of keys.

“We approach school security in terms of layers. We want a variety of things in place that will increase safety for our students and teachers in the building,” Hibbs says. “The panic buttons are an additional layer that we're able to add to increase the safety of everyone within our building”