Crisis notification system in place

In the event of an emergency such as a school shooting or an earthquake, parents would hope to get information from their child’s school as soon as possible.

When a former student set off pipe bombs at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo in late August, parents were notified about the incident and told where to pick up their children within minutes, according to district officials.

The messages went out by phone through a program called Blackboard Connect.

Last month, a similar notification system to call parents was set up for the San Mateo-Foster City School District.

“It’s important we have a single system to notify all parents in the district if there were an emergency,” district spokeswoman Joan Rosas said. “It’s a wonderful tool, we’re excited to be able to use it.”

The system that is being used by the San Mateo-Foster City School District is called SchoolMessenger. It was implemented last month at all 20 schools in the district. Each student’s emergency contact information is programmed into the system, and if an emergency happens, the district or a particular school can send out a notice to parents in any language.

The Board of Trustees with the San Mateo-Foster City School District had already given approval to getting the auto-message system on July 23, before the Hillsdale High incident, but the emergency situation underscored the importance of having the communications tool, trustee Colleen Sullivan said.

“If there was an earthquake, a gas leak or, God forbid, what happened at Hillsdale, we’d be able to alert parents of what the next steps are,” Sullivan said. “Emergency system can do both phone and e-mail notification and can translate to whatever language we need to.”

Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant, said the use of such communication systems is increasing nationwide in the “post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech era,” referring to two school shooting incidents.

Having to deal with misinformation — which can come from students themselves texting from within the school walls — can make an emergency situation worse, he said.

“School officials may have to evacuate the building,” Trump said. “Now, not only do they have to deal with threat, the students and the staff, but also the parents who have arrived 100 times faster on the scene than in the past, due to text messaging.

Micaela Ochoa, San Mateo-Foster City chief business official, said the district was able to purchase the system for all of its schools as a result of Measure L, a school bond measure approved by voters in February 2008.

Before the bond funding, only a few schools were using SchoolMessenger: Gregory Hall, Horral and College Park elementary schools.

The cost for the district to purchase a license for all schools is roughly $70,000 for five years, according to district officials.

Emergency response systems, however, have their glitches. Last month after a shooting occurred in the parking lot of Skyline College in San Bruno, emergency text messages were sent to students, but not all received them.

According to college district spokeswoman Barbara Christensen, the text alert system does not upgrade student contact
information if, for example, they switch to a new carrier. To respond to the problem, the college district is changing to Alertu, a text messaging system that does send texts to students who change carriers, she said.

The college district also sends e-mail alerts and broadcast alerts if there is an incident on campus, Christensen said.


Dial for disaster

SchoolMessenger, a system to notify parents in advent of a crisis, was recently set up for the San Mateo-Foster City School District.

$70,000 Cost for San Mateo-Foster City School District to use SchoolMessenger service for five years

59 District employees who have been trained on the system to date

20 School sites that will be using the auto-call system

10,000 K-8 students in the district

Source: San Mateo-Foster City School District


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