Baldwin’s new security system can cut time to initiate school lockdown to 5 seconds

Published: Aug. 4, 2022 at 5:50 PM CDT
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FAIRHOPE, Ala. (WALA) - If the unthinkable happens at Fairhope High School, an emergency lockdown is never more than a push of the button away.

For the past two years, the school has served as the guinea pig for the Crisis Alert Network, an emergency system that links police and school employees in the event of an emergency. This year, the Baldwin County Public School System is taking the network countywide, at a cost of $1.8 million over the next five years.

“Every employee on our campus, from custodian to cafeteria to teachers to administrators, has access to take our school into a lockdown if they see something that’s abnormal or something dangerous,” said Fairhope High School Principal Jon Cardwell.

Baldwin follows the Mobile County Public School System, which has had the Crisis Alert Network in all of its high, middle and alternative schools. This year, it is expanding to the remaining schools, according to system spokeswoman Rena Philips.

Baldwin school system officials said Fairhope High School was the ideal candidate for a pilot program because it is the system’s biggest school, with 1,650 students.

Any employee can activate the alert system from anywhere, immediately setting off alarms and flashing lights, as well as a loudspeaker announcement. An alert also flashes on every teacher’s computer, and law enforcement personnel outside the school get called. Meanwhile, the school resource officer and other employees can rush to wherever the emergency is.

Cardwell compared it to an Amber Alert.

“You can’t miss a lockdown situation using the Crisis Alert system,” he said.

Previously, Cardwell said, executing a lockdown would require him to run to the office and hit five buttons. That required up to five minutes. The Crisis Alert Network can be activated in five seconds, he said.

“It saves lives,” he said.

Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack said those extra minutes can be precious, considering active-shooter situations are over in five to six minutes, on average.

Cardwell said the system has multiple settings. Most commonly, he said, staff have used it to signal seizures or other medical emergencies – about a couple of times a month, on average.

The security upgrade comes at a time when school systems throughout the region are grappling with ways to better protect students in the wake of a deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May that left 19 children dead. The Mobile County Public School System is considering arming resource officers. The Saraland City Schools will have an armed school resource officer in each school and adopted other security upgrades.

In Baldwin County, schools officials said the Crisis Alert Network is not a response to Uvalde but is one piece of an overall security plan that is constantly evolving. Baldwin is the only countywide school system in the state with armed SROs in every school. The system pays $2.6 million a year for that and has spent about $10 million in recent years on cameras, locking mechanisms and other security features.

“I’m very proud that Baldwin County Public School System and our board – we’ve set the bar high,” schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler said.

All of the fancy security systems in the world can break down, though, if police officers don’t do their jobs. The law enforcement response to school shootings in Uvalde and in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 have raised questions. Mack says he is confident his deputies would “run to the gun” in the event of a mass shooting on a school campus.

“That is the question on everybody’s mind, and I will tell you this: I have 100 percent confidence, with no doubt, that our deputies and our police officers are gonna address that threat just as immediately as they possibly can,” he said.

The school resource officers all are trained and sworn law enforcement personnel from the Sheriff’s Office or a municipal police force. Tyler said they are the backbone of the school system’s security strategy.

“Our SROs and our security do more than just monitor the big threats,” he said. “They’re constantly handling domestic issues that come onto our campus. Sheriff Mack and his deputies and our local law enforcement, they hear it in our community what’s going on. They hear from students. So they can head off a lot of issues.”

Mack said being in the schools all day long allows resource officers to build trust with students on and off campus. That can pay dividends down the road,” he added.

“Relationship cannot just be on an eight-hour-a-day platform,” he said. “It has to be much more than that.”

There are not many statistics to point to, and that’s a good thing, the sheriff said.

“The best SRO program is when you, sometimes, don’t hear a whole lot about it,” he said. “And that’s because there’s interventions; there’s preventions.”

Mack offered a recent example. In the past couple of years, he said, a high school student tipped off the school resource officer that another student was taking a gun to campus.

“And we actually intercepted that individual in the parking lot of that high school,” he said. “And that was an intervention, and that information got from one child to another child. And that child had a relationship with that school’s resource officer.”

The new school year starts Wednesday.

Updated at 7:14 p.m. to include information about the Crisis Alert Network in the Mobile County schools.

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