Hernando County schools look for balance in navigating school-safety tech boom

The school district signed a $33,500 contract for an emergency communication app last month. But officials don't want to start jumping too quickly.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018)
Hernando County School District office, 919 N Broad St., Brooksville
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018) Hernando County School District office, 919 N Broad St., Brooksville
Published May 16

BROOKSVILLE — School security has taken center-stage in Florida over the past year, with conversations and coverage about school "hardening," resource officers and arming teachers.

But school districts also are consideringtechnology focused on making schools safer, and at least one vendor’s product soon will make its way onto smart phones and computers in the Hernando County School District.

The School Board in late April voted to purchase CrisisGo, an app-based service meant to streamline communication in emergencies. The app, for which the district paid about $33,500, has become well-known for a "panic button" feature that lets users immediatly call for help to several parties, including law enforcement. District employees can use it to communicate with each other and with outside agencies during emergencies. And it puts other information — such as the district's emergency protocols and students' emergency contact information — in one place.

Founded in 2013, CrisisGo boasted a user-base of 14,000 schools and organizations in a presentation to the School Board last month. Its Florida clients include school districts in Pasco and Martin counties. Its relative longevity makes it one of the more tested services in the growing industry, said Jill Renihan, the district's director of safe schools.

"We're just seeing the beginnings of it, I think, right now," Renihan said. "CrisisGo has been around more than five years, which is kind of old for safety tech."

Keeping track of these technologies is a significant piece of Renihan's job. She said she finds them through her own research, company inquiries and appearances at school-safety professional development events.

She looks for technology that will help the district prevent emergencies or respond to emergencies faster, she said. She also wants to be sure it works.

Renihan was interested in CrisisGo, she said, but became more intrigued when she heard an endorsement of it from Joe Erardi, a former superintendent of schools in Newtown, Connecticut. He became the leader of the district less than two years after the 2012 massacre at its Sandy Hook School.

"There's lots that's coming forward now," Renihan said. "I want something that I feel will be reliable, that meets the needs we have, but those things are developing."

Technology like this isn’t helpful only for a campus intruder or school shooting, Renihan noted. If a student has a medical emergency on the playground, for example, a teacher can alert clinic staff, administrators and a school resource deputy all at the same time. It also gives schools another line of communication if inclement weather knocks out electricity.

But the search for a way to prevent and respond to violent threats seems to have bolstered the school-security tech industry. Bill Reynolds, the CrisisGo vice president who presented to the School Board earlier this year, told Inc. magazine last year that his company gets a "flurry" of interest after most school shootings and got a "deluge" after the Parkland shootings.

The School Board also heard in February from Social Sentinel, a social media monitoring service. It identifies public posts about specific locations and flags posts with potentially threatening terms.

It's one of a few companies that has drawn attention — and criticism — for the practice, which skeptics worry could disproportionately affect black youth, prompt false alarms and create a lot of extra work for district officials.

As of the February presentation, Social Sentinel had 14 school-district clients in Florida, said Heather Harer, a vice president at the company.

Renihan said there's been interest in social media monitoring on a statewide level. Last year, the Florida Department of Education started looking for a company to provide those services. As of November, it had received eight responses.

Striking a balance between staying aware of new technology and not being too eager to jump in is key, School Board chair Susan Duval said.

"I think if we don't try to keep up, we could place ourselves in a precarious position," she said. "While I don't want to go ahead on purchasing every single thing out there, I don't want to ignore anything."

Renihan is considering other school security technology, she said. That includes video monitoring programs, as well as access-control technology that would alert school officials if a gate is left open, for example. She said she hopes the district can find products to make it more alert to what's going on in schools and quicker to respond if things go wrong.

She brought up the speed with which the Parkland massacre unfolded and said that, with schools spread out across Hernando County, the district should do everything it can to prepare.

"If it's dependent on myself or law enforcement to get there, there's a delay there that doesn't help ensure the highest degree of safety," she said. "Any time we can get seconds or minutes off responding to something on campus, we're winning."

Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.

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