Guest Column | March 11, 2013

Unified Communications, Improving School Safety

Patrick J Jones

By Patrick J. Jones, Ed. S., Director of Technology, Valley Park School District

Valley Park School District has implemented unified communications in order to improve school safety

In the wake of recent, national school safety and weather events, school districts across the nation are conducting needs assessments and re-evaluating their policies, procedures, and resources related to security or natural disaster situations.  These needs assessments are bringing together teams of stakeholders focused on the same goals: How to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a campus safety and security event.  While many of the answers to these questions might require additional funding for procurement of equipment, there are many elements that can be accommodated through exploitation of existing resources.

One of the greatest needs discovered in these assessments is communication and coordination during the response to event phase of a situation.  Statistics have shown that, in an active shooter scenario, an average shooting event lasts 13 minutes, and the average first responder arrives on scene in 10 minutes.  Any opportunities to increase communications that alert of the issue quickly, allow first response to the appropriate location on the scene, reduces the shooter’s event, and mitigate issues is essential to the safety of students and staff.

Valley Park School District, a school district of approximately 1000 K-12 students located in suburban St. Louis County, MO, has recently had similar discussions and reviews initiated by the Board and involving stakeholders across the community.  With 3 buildings all on one campus, the ability to communicate and respond to issues district-wide are essential to the safety and security of students and staff, and continuity of operations.  One of the mission critical tools district-wide that can make an impact on a safety issue is the use of district telephones, and the Unified Communication features built into the ShoreTel system.

Unified Communications are a set of resources, such as instant messaging, presence display, follow-me features, call control, intercom and paging, and fax to desktop.  These resources are built into the ShoreTel Unified Communications as part of their service offerings inherently within the system, and these resources can be deployed to meet specific areas of need or concern to the organization.  Among these many features, two specific resources that have been deployed to meet the needs of the district are the Event Notifications and the Paging System.

Event Notifications

One problem that the district wanted to address was how to notify district personnel in the event that a 9-1-1 call was placed on campus.  Generally, if that call was made to emergency services, the district may be unaware of an issue until the first responders arrive, causing confusion, panic, and dangerous delay in response.  With the event notifications within the ShoreTel Unified Communications, when a district phone makes a call to 9-1-1 an event notification alert can be emailed to select personnel indicating the time the call was made, the location of the phone making the call, and the user who made the call based on the phone presence.  This email aids in the shared knowledge of the situation, provides administration the opportunity to investigate the situation immediately, and allows primary personnel the ability to relay information to first responders as they arrive on the scene.

Paging systems

In the event of a school safety issue, the Public Address system is used to alert of the issue and provide directions to the school.  While this centralized option is essential to coordinating response to an event, there may be times when the event initially occurs distant from that centralized location.  To address this need, the ShoreTel Paging feature was activated, establishing call groups with dedicated extension numbers for each building and the entire district, which can be initiated from any phone within the district.  In the event of an issue across campus, distributed access is available to make the initial report over the paging system by anyone, broadcasting through the speakers on the phone and alerting the entire school or district. 

Effective communication resources are essential in any safety and security issue, especially those that involve children.  So it is imperative to deploy those resources best suited to the situation, where the form of the solution meets the function of the needs.

About The Author

Patrick J. Jones has worked for 6 years as the Director of Technology at Valley Park School District, a Pre-K through 12 Public School District in Suburban St. Louis, MO, where he leads a Tech Team that manages computers, servers, phones, printers, and other technology peripherals.  Patrick oversees the administration of the district technology, setting vision and strategic planning to provide adequate resources and training for effective instruction, learning, assessment, extension, and intervention.  Together with the team of dedicated district administrators, Valley Park School District has been recognized for numerous state and national awards, such as Gold Star, Blue Ribbon, and National School of Character.  His experience in education includes classroom teacher, coach, building administrator, and central office administrator.  He serves as the Chair-Elect for the Missouri Education Technology Leaders, a local CoSN affiliate, and has been President of the Education Technology Association of St. Louis.  He is currently working on his doctorate in Education and Organizational Leadership with Superintendency focus through Concordia University Chicago.