Cobb schools spent almost $3 million on second crisis alert system

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The Cobb County School District has spent nearly $3 million on its new crisis alert system, after investing $5 million in its prior system, invoices and purchase orders recently obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request show.

The district’s prior system triggered a lockdown at every school last year when there was no threat.

That history is enough to give some community members pause.

“People are very wary of it for that very reason — if one system failed, what about the other one?” said Jeff Hubbard, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators. “But I think the true test is going to be a wait and see until it’s actually needed, to see how effective the system really is.”

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At a board meeting in June, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale did not say how much the new system would cost, share details about the services that would be provided or say how long the contract with the new company would last.

The district has repeatedly refused to answer security-related questions in an effort to keep students safe, a spokeswoman said.

The new system, called Centegix, provides every staff member with a badge that has a button that can trigger different alerts. Centegix CEO Brent Cobb told the AJC that anyone with the badge can immediately alert administrators to things like medical emergencies or fights. They can also initiate a more serious response in the case of something like an active shooter: Not only would officials be notified of the threat and the exact location, but lights would flash throughout campus, and instructions would be read over the intercom system and display on computer screens to notify everyone else.

“You can’t stop every emergency from happening,” Brent Cobb said. “More than anything, we provide a very quick response.”

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The system, including the badges, software and campus equipment like the lights, costs roughly $8,000 per school per year, Brent Cobb said. Purchase orders and invoices show that the school district spent a little more than $2.8 million between June 2021 and June 2022. That’s enough to put the system at every Cobb school for three years. A spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the length of the contract.

The district began using AlertPoint in 2017. But in February 2021, the system triggered a lockdown at all campuses when no threat was present. District officials first called it a “malfunction,” and later, a “targeted, external attack.”

Cobb “quickly transitioned” to Centegix after that event, Ragsdale said in June 2022.

Some teachers were still being trained on the system in the week before Labor Day, nearly a month after classes started, Hubbard said. A district spokeswoman told the AJC that the system was “fully installed and functional” by Aug. 1 in response to questions about the new system.

Some teachers are comforted by the new system, Hubbard said. But there’s trepidation among the staff that was shared by some board members in June.

“We invested a lot with AlertPoint. Then we had a pretty significant situation that we still — I don’t even know the details of,” said board member Jaha Howard at the time. “We’re changing companies and I know, as a board member, I want to have some confidence in the company.”

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Centegix is employed in more than 200 school districts in 25 states, Brent Cobb said, including metro Atlanta school systems in Cherokee, Clayton and Henry counties. More than half of Georgia schools employ the system, Brent Cobb said. Cobb is Georgia’s second-largest school district, with about 107,000 students.

Notably, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina sued the company in 2020 after repeated failures or malfunctions, according to court records. The district and company reached a “mutually agreeable resolution,” Centegix said in a statement at the time.

“It’s the only customer that we’ve signed up that we don’t have today,” Brent Cobb added.

Experts tend to take a cautious approach to crisis alert systems as well.

“The alert systems are not common,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based consulting firm. The company evaluates schools for safety and security. “But they’re the latest things that some school administrators are grasping for.”

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When school shootings happen like the May incident in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two adults, administrators feel the pressure to show that they’re doing something, Trump said. Measures like alert systems can often respond to an emotional need rather than a practical one, he said.

Cobb first initiated a purchase order for Centegix in June 2021, long before the Uvalde shooting, but announced the implementation publicly afterward.

Ragsdale has emphasized that any resource that can save time will translate to saving lives.