When Parents Need to Know

On Feb. 23, 2010, Bruco Eastwood woke up brooding about being bullied by rich kids when he attended Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton, Col. At age 32, Eastwood was unemployed and still living in his father’s house. When bad memories overcame him that day, he grabbed his father’s high-powered .30-06 rifle and lit out for Deer Creek.

He hung around the school for a while, perhaps working himself up. Then, as school was letting out, he appeared on the sidewalk where students were boarding the buses to go home.

Around 3:10 p.m., he asked a couple of kids if they attended Deer Creek. When they said yes, he shot them both — inflicting grievous but non-fatal injuries.

Dr. David Benke, a math teacher who saw the shooting tackled the gunman, putting a stop to what could have been a massacre. Other teachers helped to disarm the troubled shooter and hold him down until the police arrived.

At 3:57 p.m., parents of students attending Deer Creek received notice of a shooting at the school. Two students had been injured. Everyone else was safe. The suspect had been disarmed and was in custody.

Telephone, e-mail, texts and even social networking pages delivered the message, which was generated by the SchoolMessenger emergency notification system, a hosted software as a service (SaaS) provided by Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Reliance Communications.

The message went to parents (and guardians) who had filled out a student information card at the beginning of the school year. The card asked for complete contact information, which was entered into the notification system database. Parents who for one reason or another had not completed a student information card might also have enrolled in the SchoolMessenger database through the Jefferson County School District Website by clicking into the security area.

“Emergency mass notification of students in K-12 schools isn’t a huge problem,” says Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, Inc., a Lemont, Ill.-based consulting firm specializing in school security. “The kids are mostly in one building, and administrators can use the school-wide public address system to declare an emergency and issue instructions.”

The real challenges of K-12 emergency notification begin with selecting a technology that can get a message to every parent or guardian without fail when there is an emergency.

Convenient and easy to use, Web-hosted, SaaS subscription services require no capital outlay to acquire and install. Nor do they tie up in-house IT people with maintenance, trouble-shooting and upgrading chores.

Experts also note that not all mass notification systems and services work as advertised. Ask for and check references, they advise.

In addition, research the technologies and ask questions.

For instance, experts consider average capacity utilization to be a key measure of the capability of a Web-hosted mass notification service.

A system will fail to do its job when average use is so high that there isn’t enough capacity left to pump out all of the messages necessary to inform a school’s parents about an emergency.

In a Web presentation available on the SchoolMessenger Website, Bev White, CEO of Bev White Consulting, which specializes in technology for K-12 schools says, that as a rule of thumb, a system’s average capacity utilization should be no higher than two percent. “This leaves plenty of headroom for peak usage periods,” she says. “Check with your notification provider on the average use rate relative to capacity — and realize that as the provider’s customer base grows, the system will need additional capacity” to maintain an acceptable average capacity utilization rate.

The geographic concentration of an SaaS mass notification provider is important, too, continues White. She recommends dealing with providers who have no more than 15 percent of their total customers in any particular area.

“Suppose a hypothetical vendor has half of its customers in the Northeast,” she says. “If a huge storm hits the Northeast, it will impact all of the customers in that area. All of the users in that concentrated base of customers will overwhelm the notification system provider’s infrastructure. This will affect users in other areas of the country as well.”

When selecting a system, talk to consultants, learn the potential technological problems, check references and ask questions.

Say What?
Once a parental notification technology solution has been selected, the next challenge is what to tell parents. Timm has an outline for emergency notification messages: Tell what happened, what school officials are doing about it and, finally, what officials would like parents to do.

To illustrate the point, he relates a personal experience. “Recently the high school that my children attend received a threat,” he says. “It was a message scrawled on the bathroom wall: ‘Beware the 18th.’”

The principal crafted an emergency message that told what had happened: “We’ve received threats that suggest something will happen on the 18th of the month.”

Then came information about what school officials were doing about it: “We’ve reported this to the police and asked for help on the 18th. School will open, but we will have the police and teachers patrolling outside and inside the building.”

The message concluded by asking parents to take two steps: “We’ve set up a special telephone line. If you know anything about this threat, please call and tell us about it.”

The message concluded by asking parents to send their kids to school on the 18th.

“It was very well handled,” Timm says. “Given the police and faculty patrols, the school was probably the safest place to be on the 18th. We sent our kids and, in fact, 90 percent of the student body showed up.”

Timm also observes that the temptation to cover up the threat must have been huge. Why not just paint the bathroom, keep it quiet — and, of course, beef up security on the 18th?

“There is every reason to believe that a number of students and teachers read the threatening message,” he says. “Had the principal kept quiet, someone would have told a parent who might have told the media and caused a community-wide outcry.”

Tornadoes and Snow, Polls and Absenteeism

The threat of gun violence played a role in introducing emergency notification systems to K-12 schools. Now administrators are finding that these systems have other uses.

The Valparaiso Community School Corp in Valparaiso, Ind., has used its SaaS system to announce weather emergencies. One morning shortly after the system was set up, the city’s tornado sirens went off. It was early, and many students were on the buses on their way to school. Others were still at the bus stops.

The superintendent directed the buses to continue their pickups, not wanting to strand students at bus stops. Then he used the emergency notification system to send out phone and e-mail messages describing the measures being taken to ensure that students were safe and to monitor the weather.

Other districts report using notification systems to inform parents if schools would open or close when some more routine weather event —snow or thunderstorms, for instance — caused transportation problems.

The St. Cloud school district in St. Cloud, Minn., has used a mass notification system to poll parents on school issues. Last year, the superintendent queried parents about the spring break schedule for the year.

New York City Public Schools recently applied a mass notification system to the problems of truancy and chronic absenteeism.

In the program, dubbed WakeUp! NYC, the notification system makes morning wake-up calls to students that are chronically absent and plays inspirational messages recorded by celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Jose Reyes, Trey Songz and others.

The program is too new to have results just yet, but a pilot program run during the first half of the 2010-2011 school year reported a decline of 24 percent in chronic absenteeism in 10 elementary schools. Eight middle schools reduced chronic absenteeism by 16 percent.

Then again, school officials must take care not to overuse mass notification systems. “Many schools use systems for general announcements,” Timm says. “You have to be careful to preserve the sense that messages of the utmost importance are communicated with this system.”

Mass notification for parents has become an absolute necessity in K-12 schools. When a serious emergency strikes, reports quickly appear on television and the Internet based on the best available information. If you have paid attention to media reporting during emergencies, you know that early reports are filled with misinformation. During a school emergency, misinformation can panic parents.

Parents need the right information about what has happened, what school officials are doing about it and what they, the parents, should do. Mass notification technology enables you to give that information to parents today.