AUSTIN (Nexstar) – In the aftermath of Uvalde, two of the state’s top Republicans have signaled certain school safety measures will be a priority in this legislative session, making some lawmakers more hopeful about passing bills they’ve been unable to in the past.
For a second session in a row, Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, is introducing the ‘panic button bill’ — legislation that would require Texas schools to have alert devices with technology that immediately notify EMS, law enforcement, and other first responders in the case of an emergency.
Her bill is modeled after Alyssa’s Law, which was named after one of the victims of the Parkland high school shooting in Florida, which left 17 people dead. The goal of the law is to address lagged law enforcement response due to slowed, secondary communication between teachers and administrators and 911 operators and first responders. Both Florida and New Jersey have adopted these laws.
As a mother to a 10-year-old daughter, Thierry says the bill is personal for her.
“Time equals life — within minutes, within seconds. All of that makes the difference between saving a life,” she said.
During the 2021 legislative session, Thierry’s bill passed across party lines in the House but died in the Senate. This year, she is working with Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and feels more confident about its passage, especially given both Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have mentioned school safety amongst their top priorities.
“What we saw in Uvalde was tragic. But what made it even worse was that we heard stories of children as young as 9 and 10 years old, crouched under their desks, using their own personal cell phones trying to contact the police to tell them that they were alive,” she said. “This technology allows you to, in a moment, press essentially a button and immediately communicate in real-time with first responders and they can track your location.”
How the panic button technology works
Theirry’s legislation doesn’t require school districts to adopt a certain brand or company-make of panic alert systems.
One private company that created a panic-alert system, Centegix, demoed how the product works for Nexstar.
Attached behind a teacher’s ID lanyard that they wear around school, the Centegix badge has a button for users to press in case of an emergency. For medical emergencies, teachers press it 3 times and it notifies administrators and local responders about the situation.
In the event of an active shooter, users keep pressing the button until they hear the alarm system go off. Immediately, alert lights installed in each classroom, hallways and other parts of the school start to flash. Everyone in the building will quickly become aware of the need to lock down and local responders are notified, with an exact map and location of where people are located in the building.
Heather Connelly, a regional vice president for Centegix, said that as a former high school teacher herself, she wishes she would have had something like her company’s badge.
Most school districts have alert app systems on their cell phones to use in an active shooter situation. However, Connelly said this can be troublesome as apps rely on a WiFi connection, and frequently, many teachers don’t even download it on their personal phones.
“I can tell you, I rarely had my cell phone in my hand while I was teaching,” she said. “You’re actually counting on a lot of human behavior and a lot of human acceptance in order to use it and that is what failed in Uvalde.”
The special Texas House investigation committee that analyzed failures in the Robb Elementary School shooting, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, did cite the apps as a faulty method of communication. Due to poor broadband connectivity in the area, not everyone in the school received alerts about the gunman immediately.
“When you’re in an emergency like that, it’s hard to remember what to do. Even though we’re training our kids and staff on how to do a lockdown, sometimes you get stressed and you’re in shock,” Connelly said. “So it gives everybody the chance to get themselves behind a locked door and in the safest place.”
As a parent to two sons, Lake Travis father William Fullerton just wants to feel reassured that his children are safe when he drops them off at school. He’s hoping lawmakers pass Thierry’s bill, but also that districts provide more information to parents about the safeguards in place for Texas children.
“We’ve got A through F accountability standards in Texas for academics and financials for school districts, and both of those systems provide amazing transparency to parents,” Fullerton said. “I think the same level of transparency and accountability belongs in school safety — parents, taxpayers, educators, all alike need to know how safe those schools are.”
What’s the cost of these devices?
According to the fiscal note from Thierry’s 2021 bill, requiring this in schools would cost the state of Texas about $20 million, which the fiscal note said would not create a “significant fiscal implication” on the budget.
Thierry says she’s also already worked to procure that money by securing money from grants.
“We have more dollars coming this session, our school safety allotment will be able to cover the costs for this if there’s additional cost,” she said. “It’s just really important that schools understand that they need every tool in the tool chest. We don’t want to be looking back a day later and saying ‘if only we had had this.’”
Installation for alert systems like Centegix is costly, but Connelly notes it’s a one-time, quick installment and that there are grants school districts can apply to.
While some critics say such technology is mostly reactive and doesn’t address the reasons why school shootings happen, Theirry said the legislation would still be a good start.
“You can’t let perfect get in the way of good,” she said. “It is just another way to make sure that our teachers and our children are not sitting in a silo in the event of an emergency, unable to really reach the outside world.”