Experts say panic buttons can enhance school safety, but only 6 states require them

In December 2021, the principal at Eagle Point Elementary School in Broward County, Florida, received an anonymous bomb threat. Using a silent panic alarm app on her phone, she alerted police and within seconds her image appeared on multiple screens in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff’s office was able to immediately give her instructions to evacuate the school, and call the fire department and the bomb squad.

“We were able to coordinate the whole thing within seconds,” Capt. Michael Riggio with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office told CNN. Thankfully, the threat was unfounded. It was called in by an elementary school student as a joke, the sheriff’s office said.

The school district, which serves more than 251,000 students, adopted a silent panic alarm system in the wake of the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that claimed 17 lives.

Florida has since raised the minimum age to buy firearms from 18 to 21 under a law that also allows for some teachers to be armed. Despite the impassioned pleas for more thorough gun reform that followed the Parkland shooting, the number of school shootings in the US has climbed steadily each year since 2018, with the exception of 2020, when many schools were closed due to Covid-19, according to CNN’s analysis of events reported by the Gun Violence Archive, Education Week and Everytown for Gun Safety.

Florida adopted Alyssa’s Law in 2020, named in honor of Alyssa Alhadeff, who was 14 when she was killed in the Parkland shooting. The law requires public schools to install a silent panic alarm system in schools that is directly linked to law enforcement. In the absence of gun reform, proponents of Alyssa’s Law say a silent panic alarm system can reduce response time in the face of gun violence or a medical emergency.

Since then, only a handful of states have followed suit. Five states – New Jersey, New York, Texas, Tennessee and Utah – have also approved legislation requiring or encouraging silent panic alarm systems in schools.

Some schools have adopted apps that allow staff to report an emergency with a few clicks on their phones. Others have opted to provide staff with literal panic buttons, often attached to an ID badge that is always on their person. The panic buttons or apps can often send precise location information to law enforcement and initiate a school-wide alert or shelter in place notice.

Advocating for Alyssa’s Law

In 2018, Alyssa’s family founded Make Our Schools Safe, a nonprofit that advocates for the adoption of Alyssa’s Law across the United States.

“On February 14, I texted my daughter Alyssa. I told her to run and hide – that help was on the way, and then unfortunately, that help didn’t get there fast enough,” Alyssa’s mother, Lori Alhadeff, told CNN. “Time equals life and if we can get help on the scene as quickly as possible, we know that we will save lives.”

Alyssa’s Law legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, Arizona, Virginia, Oregon, Georgia, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, according to Make Our Schools Safe. There have also been several attempts to introduce legislation at the federal level.

“They think it’s a great idea,” Alhadeff said, “but they want to know how it’s going to be funded, so it is a budget concern. However, what I would say is this: We need to make school safety a top priority in every school district.”

Alhadeff says her family’s story and those of others who have lost loved ones to gun violence in schools often makes the difference when advocating for legislation. She recently traveled to Utah and spoke with Rep. Ryan Wilcox and other state legislators before they made the decision to add the panic button requirement to a state school safety bill, backed by $100 million in funding.

Funding is generally built into the laws at a state level. Florida allocated $6.4 million in recurring funds to help schools implement panic button systems.

Brent Cobb, CEO of Centegix, a company specializing in safety technology, told CNN the cost of outfitting a school with his company’s panic button systems is about $8,000 a year.

Panic button systems can be helpful, but they’re just one of multiple safety measures, like perimeter security, that schools need to keep students safe, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a nonprofit group of school-based security professionals, told CNN.

Canady says his early days working as a school resource officer in the US coincided with the 1999 Columbine High School massacre that killed 13 people in Colorado.

“We didn’t have this kind of technology at that time, so it was a bit of a guessing game,” he said. “Now, if you hear shots fired, you know where they’re exactly coming from, is the shooter moving somewhere else – this kind of technology can help us narrow down where we need to look.”

Canady says there needs to be a structure in place so schools and law enforcement agencies know how to respond to reported emergencies.

“The last thing we want to do is hand out a piece of technology without any policy or procedure in mind – ‘just push it if you have a problem,’” he said.

Alhadeff says the ultimate goal is to see Alyssa’s Law implemented nationwide.

“Think about our banks. Every bank has a panic button. Every federal office has a panic button. Why wouldn’t we want to make panic buttons in every one of our schools across this country?” Alhadeff said.

The Broward County school district implemented silent panic alarm systems in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. - Saul Martinez/Getty Images
The Broward County school district implemented silent panic alarm systems in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. - Saul Martinez/Getty Images

Linking schools to first responders

While panic button systems are often installed to protect staff and students from potential gun violence, the systems have more often been used in cases of medical emergencies, according to Centegix.

The company released a report in January showing of about 15,000 alerts sent within Texas schools, 98% were for “everyday incidents related to health and behavioral emergencies.” The report cites incidents of cardiac arrest and seizures on campus, where a panic button was used to quickly get help.

Cobb says Centegix has been able to cater its services to help meet the needs of individual communities, figuring out how best to quickly link school personnel with law enforcement.

The Broward County school district opted for the SaferWatch app, according to Broward County Public Schools Chief Safety and Security Officer Jaime Alberti. The company told CNN it’s used by 2,000 schools and 200 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

In Broward County, the app connects the sheriff’s office to cameras in the schools. It also allows school staff to report emergencies to law enforcement and has an anonymous tip reporting function that is open to students and other community members in the district.

Alberti says the district has an operation center that runs 24/7 to sift through and follow up on tips, for instance, of people threatening to commit an act of violence on campus. Many of those tips end up being false alarms, Alberti says, but the district’s partnership with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office allows them to investigate and follow up with the appropriate resources.

Capt. Mike Riggio told CNN the tip reporting function has been critical for getting ahead of threats before they’re acted on. The department’s threat assessment unit has hired behavioral health licensed therapists to assess people who may want to commit acts of mass violence and connect them to mental health providers in the community.

“I think there are still not a lot of places in the country that have quite the relationship we do,” Riggio said. “In our real time crime center, we have sworn detectives and crime analysts who work together. And now that we have cameras when things happen, we’re on those cameras right away. We have eyes into the school.”

“You’re at a school on the other side of the county, you hit that panic alarm, within 5 seconds, it’s going off in our crime center,” he added.

That peace of mind is paramount in a community still healing from the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Alberti said.

“It’s still very present. It’s still very painful,” he said. “So we’re double checking. We’re triple checking. When I go to sleep at night, there’s people up working to make sure that student threats are being handled.”

For schools operating without the extra bells and whistles of cameras or high-tech threat reporting – or even those without panic button technology – Alberti said the foundation of this safety partnership can be replicated just about anywhere.

“Some things are free. Lock your doors. Stay aware of your surroundings. Those things are everybody’s responsibility. We own the whole house. We don’t just own a part of the house,” he said.

CNN’s Alex Leeds Matthews contributed to this report.

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