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Latest in Back-to-School Tech: Panic Buttons for Teachers

MadeSafe.pngIt's not just facial-recognition systems, social-media monitoring services, massive databases, and apps to report anonymous tips.

This week, Texas's Lovejoy Independent School District became the first K-12 school system in the country to roll out the "MadeSafe Alert System," a new security technology in which all school staff are outfitted with personal panic buttons they can use to sound the alarm on everything from school shooters to medical emergencies.

"When the button is pressed, MadeSafe notifies first responders with an employee's specific location by displaying the location of the alert on a 3D map of the school, as well as sending a text and email to designated staff," according to a Monday press release from Enseo, the company behind the device.

It's just the latest example of companies seeking to capitalize on mounting safety concerns by marketing to schools versions of security technologies already used in other industries. For years, Enseo has deployed similar systems in hundreds of hotels.

The surge in companies offering new K-12 security technologies follows last year's high-profile shootings at high schools in Florida and Texas, which have prompted changes in state and federal law and created a sense of urgency among many parents and district leaders.  

Experts, however, are quick to point out that despite the headlines, data show no spike in the actual occurrences of school shootings, which remain rare. 

Privacy and civil-liberties groups have also raised concerns about many of the new technologies being pitched to schools, saying they will dramatically increase surveillance of students and staff and could exacerbate racial and other biases.

And many observers also warn against a rush to adopt unproven—and in some cases, untested—products, saying schools may be better served by following basic steps such as locking gates and enforcing existing ID policies. 

"The ability for teachers and support staff to communicate in a timely manner in an emergency is critical," said school-safety consultant Kenneth Trump. "However, the devil is in the details of implementation when it comes to the plethora of gadgets, bells, and whistles on the market."

From Hotels to Schools?

Enseo's personal panic buttons look like a key fob and can be attached to a lanyard worn around a teacher's neck.

Officially dubbed Personal Location Devices, they contain wireless transmitters that provide precise location information after a red button is depressed for three seconds.

Those transmissions are communicated to MadeSafe "gateway" devices, which need to be installed throughout schools. Hardwired into a school's existing internet infrastructure, the gateway devices communicate directly to law enforcement and other designated first responders. In addition to providing detailed location information, they can also be tied into schools' security camera systems, allowing those charged with responding to emergencies to see live video in an area where an alert has been triggered.  

"Anything we can do to shorten the time between an alert and when a first responder arrives on site, the better," Enseo founder and CEO Vanessa Ogle said in an interview.

The basic technology is about four years old, Ogle said.

When MadeSafe was launched, Enseo thought it would be a good solution for both schools and hotels and hired sales teams focused on each. But while initial interest from K-12 leaders was tepid, she said, the company's business with hospitality providers took off. 

In a hotel context, the gateway devices can be used for communication between rooms and the front desk, as well as to deliver entertainment and other content over the television. The panic buttons are worn by housekeeping staff as a safety device (to prevent assaults too often experienced by vulnerable employees who are often working alone) and as an alert that can be used in the event of medical emergencies.

Asked about concerns that such a device could be used to monitor and surveil school employees, Ogle said that MadeSafe has been endorsed by a number of large employee unions representing maids and hotel housekeeping staff—in part because the panic buttons only track and transmit information about the wearer's location after the panic button has been depressed.

As for questions about how MadeSafe will be implemented in educational environments, Ogle said the company will have a lot to learn from its initial deployment in Lovejoy schools—for the moment, Enseo's only K-12 client. 

False alarms and other unintended uses and consequences will likely be a challenge, she said, and the onus will be on school districts to make sure the new technology is not used in unintended ways.

"My biggest concern is school districts not having the expertise to write the correct policies and procedures on how to appropriately train staff," Ogle said. 

"We will have to watch closely what's happening."

Photo: Enseo


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