Metro schools upgrade safety systems

Paul Hildreth sits in his office in the Emergency Operation Center at the Fulton County Schools Administrative Center in Atlanta on Aug. 1, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Paul Hildreth sits in his office in the Emergency Operation Center at the Fulton County Schools Administrative Center in Atlanta on Aug. 1, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

As the 2017-2018 school year wrapped up, gun violence and mass shootings dominated headlines. Although many security plans were already set to be implemented, school administrators, law enforcement and elected officials on state, local and national levels spent the summer break focused on keeping students and staff safe.

Metro school districts are addressing the concern in various ways. One of the costliest and most high-tech responses is a state-of-the-art video surveillance system called Avigilon to be installed in over 105 Fulton County public school buildings.

"The basic idea is to have one place to collaborate on emergency situations," said Paul Hildreth, safety coordinator for Fulton County Schools. "Safety comes in all forms — weather advisories, traffic alerts, as well as criminal activity."

It's the law for schools to have plans in place to make sure they're safe.

The system is designed to be self-learning: It realizes patterns of activity and will send out an alert when something out of the ordinary happens.

“It might sense activity in the parking lot when everyone is supposed to be in the building,” said Hildreth. “That would prompt us to check it out. It could very well just be a student coming in late or getting something he forgot in his car.”

Phase one is already in place at 17 schools (10 high schools, five middle schools and two elementary schools). Phase two is still in the design stage for another 17 schools.

The $4.6 million cost is being paid with local sales tax, SPLOST, funds.

Fulton, the fourth-largest school district in the state, has the funds for that type of elaborate system, but safety is an expense for all metro school districts. Some, like Gwinnett, Clayton and Henry Counties, added more school police officers. Some, like DeKalb County, have also invested in safety features in buildings such as metal detectors and roll-down security doors.

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Fulton’s Avigilon capabilities, Hildreth said, “allow our safety and security teams to monitor activities in and around facilities with laser sharp accuracy via desktop computers, non-portable monitoring stations or mobile devices.” High-tech lenses allow the users to pan the cameras throughout a pre-determined range, zoom in for a closer view, or change the angles of the view – all in high definition. The artificial intelligence component enables finding targets based on a tagged “appearance search.”

This type of technology is used at major airports as well as other highly secured environments.

It also allows the district to share information with local law enforcement. Fulton County Schools has partnered with the Sandy Springs and Johns Creek emergency call centers and Fulton County 911 Dispatch so that in emergencies they have direct access to view the Avigilon cameras in schools. Discussions are underway to share this capability with other municipalities’ police departments.

Rapid information sharing is another one of the areas school districts are focusing on for safety, with Cobb County testing a crisis-management system to enable widespread alerts, and Cherokee replacing its anonymous tip hotline with a new alert system.

Ideas about what schools should emphasize in their search for student safety are plentiful. Ken Trump, a former Cleveland Public Schools police officer who has advised administrators on school safety in all 50 states, said a principal told him several months ago, “ ‘I don’t know what to believe and who to listen to.’

“While all voices deserve to be heard, not all recommendations for improving school safety being put forth by well-intended people are aligned with research and best practices,” he said. “It is important to remember that some voices, in particular many advocates and activists, come with single-incident experiences and/or single-issue perspectives. When considering school safety, security, and emergency preparedness, educators and policymakers need to think ‘comprehensively’ and ‘balanced,’ not narrowly, in their approaches.”

That’s the main goal of the two state legislative committees on school gun violence, formed after a gunman killed 17 students and staff members at a Florida high school in February.

HB 763 created Georgia’s Safe Schools grant program, providing criteria for $16 million allocated to school systems across the state. This legislation is also supposed to improve coordination between schools and local law enforcement while helping schools establish comprehensive school safety plans before the 2018 school year begins.

SR 935 is to help shape the future of the grant program, in addition to making legislative recommendations that promote the most effective school-safety policies.

The Senate K-12 Safety Study Committee headed by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, has had two meetings where experts in school safety and local districts shared best practices.

“The committee is making solid progress and will have actionable steps in place for legislation, rules and budget,” Albers said in a written statement.

Future meetings are set for Aug 24 in Albany, Sept 18 in Chamblee, Oct 26 in Savannah and a November date yet to be determined at the Capitol.

Although the House committee got off to an earlier start, it wasn’t as active this summer due to health concerns of Chairman Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper.

“I had a few health issues I had to get fixed,” he said. But members of the committee attended active-shooter training in Douglasville recently and plan to hold the next meeting later this month.

“We’re looking at this from so many angles,” he said, referencing a counseling program in Pickens County and a Secret Service report released recently.

“The beauty of these committees is that we’re working to fix any gaps in the law.”

Metro school districts shared highlights of school safety measures for the upcoming year:

Clayton County

All high schools are assigned two police officers and two security officers, except Elite Scholars, Perry Center & Stilwell School of the Arts, which are assigned one police officer and one security officer.

Henry County

The biggest addition has been supplying a school resource officer at every middle and high school in the district.

Cobb County

The Cobb County School District has become the first in the state to test a new crisis management system called AlertPoint. It gives each employee the ability to activate an emergency alert anywhere on a school campus.

DeKalb County

The new construction of school buildings includes roll-down doors that keep unauthorized or unwanted individuals off school property. Metal Detectors are to planned to be installed initially in five high schools. A team of DCSD staff will conduct random audits to assist schools with the identification of on-campus areas that may need additional supervision.

Gwinnett County

This year GCPS will employ 89 police officers, including 15 new officers — two at every high school and one at every middle school. New this yearwill be some at elementary schools. The county also has a confidential tip line (770-822-6513) that now allows texting information regarding school safety. GCPS is also expanding the use of its Visitor Management System (buzzer system) to include high schools. These systems already are in place at elementary and middle schools.

Cherokee County

The SafeSchools Alert system will allow students, parents, school staff and everyone in the community to anonymously report safety concerns by text, email, online message or phone call. This system will replace the previous anonymous tip hotline.