Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting

Communication Is the Key

Since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., school safety has been receiving more attention. Many states are even providing additional funds for schools to increase security. Unfortunately, typical security measures like metal detectors, police presence and surveillance cameras can often have the unintentional effect of making school feel like a prison. So, some schools now use advanced technology to improve safety without threatening students.

Unified Communication Systems

Valley Park School District, a small district in St. Louis County, Mo., decided to address safety concerns using a unified communications system in each of their three schools. The system allows for
one phone system to reach any of the faculty and staff at Valley Park, even, in some cases, if they are not on campus. With three schools on one campus, the need to communicate between buildings has grown.

Patrick Jones, the director of Technology for Valley Park School District, notes that the security feature of this system “was always an option, but not really one we needed.” The district installed the system three years ago because it is easy to use and offers faculty and staff increased flexibility. “It was a no-brainer,” he says. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, administrators looked deeper into how they could use the communication system to increase school safety.

Previously, if a teacher placed a 911 call on the classroom phone, the other schools and district administrators may not have been aware of it until the first responders arrived on the campus. This lack of communication could lead to confusion and panic.

With the new system, designated personnel receive an automatic notification anytime someone places an emergency call from a district phone. The system tells them who placed the call, where the call came from, and when it occurred. For instance, if a high school teacher dials 911, the system makes it possible for not only the high school principal, but also the elementary and middle school principals to receive notification.

Recently, they used the communication system for an intruder drill. The high school simulated having an intruder and practiced with a building-wide page. Even though the “intruder” was in the high school building, the middle and elementary schools were also alerted and responded accordingly. The communications system has also made fire drills more effective. “What’s nice about the system is that it’s something we can manage,” Jones says. The staff can coordinate these drills without needing to hire additional people or outsource some of the work.

But the system does not sit idly awaiting an emergency. School district staff use it frequently to find people on campus. Jones gives an example, saying they can now track down the middle school principal if he’s in another building. In addition to paging, the system also allows for call forwarding, so administrators can also take calls on their cell phones when they are away from the district phone. Teachers can also choose to not accept non-emergency calls in their classrooms at any point. For example, this year, teachers disabled the phones during standardized testing so that students could work uninterrupted during those hours.

Jones looks forward to the next phase in the voice communication system’s evolution. He wants the system hooked up to the PA system, so that alerts would broadcast through speakers all over the school. That way, people in the hallway don’t miss anything. This kind of forward thinking and willingness to embrace new technology looks promising for the district’s goal to protect Valley Park’s children.

Multi-Faceted Systems

Much of the technology used in schools today is multi-faceted. School districts are finding ways to consolidate systems with the aim of improving teaching and learning while keeping students safe. Newton County School System, in Covington, Ga., recently expanded their A/V system to address several concerns, including safety.

Audio Enhancement, a media technology company, created the system in Newton County that has three components — audio, video and security. Three years ago, the district installed the audio portion, which amplified sound in the classroom. Each teacher wears a microphone and can be heard from anywhere in the room. Surveys and other data have shown that students were more focused and teachers didn’t need to strain to be heard. Last spring, the district started a pilot program for the video component of the system, allowing teachers to record their classes.

This school year, they installed the video system into 20 classrooms in Newton High School and saw an immediate improvement in discipline. In the first two months of this school year, there was only one discipline-related incident in any of the classrooms. In previous school years, these classrooms might have had at least 10, or as many as 30 disciplinary incidents, according to Dr. Gary Shattuck, director of Technology & Media Services for the Newton County School System. He says that students have been behaving better because they know they are being recorded. As an additional bonus, there’s less argument from parents and students when behavior problems arise because, as Dr. Shattuck says, “the video doesn’t lie.”

Dr. Shattuck also sees the video system as a professional development tool. “I saw it as a tremendous opportunity for self improvement,” he says. Teachers can now watch their lessons and see what they do well and where they can improve. These videos are also used in professional development sessions so that the teachers can learn from each other. “Teachers can see what good teaching should look like, and they can try to emulate that,” Dr. Shattuck adds.

Dr. Craig Lockhart, the principal of Newton High School, emphasizes that even with the capabilities of the system, he respects his teachers’ right to refuse to be videotaped. “In our district, we believe trust is vital to making this program successful. Therefore, in most cases, administrators must ask permission from teachers to view the classroom. That removes the feeling that ‘Big Brother’ is constantly watching and monitoring the teacher’s activities,” he says.

The final component of the system is the security feature. On the microphone that the teacher wears as part of the sound amplification system, there is a panic button. If the teacher presses it, a silent alarm goes to the office, where alarms will start to blare and lights will flash. The safety system works in tandem with the video system. When a teacher presses the silent alarm, the principal or another designated school official will receive an email with a link to a live feed into the classroom. This enables the administrators to give very specific information to emergency personnel. Plus, when the police arrive on the scene, they can actually see the problem and respond accordingly rather than going in blind.

This system works to keep teachers and students accountable while simultaneously keeping them safe, says Dr. Shattuck. He repeatedly stated that all three of the components of their system are equally important. “We want them to learn and that’s why they’re (in school),” he emphasizes, “But if they aren’t safe, they aren’t going to learn.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Lockhart agrees on the importance of this kind of technology saying, “The technology has proven beneficial to us thus far, and we expect this form of hardware to be as common as desks and white boards in the coming years.” 

Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer who specializes in education topics. She can be reached through her site at tipofpen.wordpress.com.


This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management June 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.