FAIRHOPE, Ala. (WALA) – If the unthinkable happens at Fairhope High School, an emergency lockdown is never more than a push of the button.
For the past two years, the school has served as a guinea pig for the Crisis Alert Network, an emergency system that connects police and school employees in the event of an emergency. This year, the Baldwin County Public School System is expanding the network countywide, at a cost of $1.8 million over the next five years.
“Every employee on our campus, from the janitor to the cafeteria to teachers and administrators, has access to our school’s isolation if they see anything abnormal or unsafe,” the principal said. Fairhope High School, 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 an ideal candidate for a pilot program because it is the largest school in the system, with 1,650 students.
Any employee can activate the alert system from anywhere, immediately triggering alarms and flashing lights, as well as a loudspeaker announcement. An alert also flashes on each teacher’s computer and law enforcement outside the school is called. Meanwhile, the school resource manager and other staff can rush to where the emergency is.
Cardwell compared it to an Amber Alert.
“You cannot miss a lockdown situation using the crisis alert system,” he said.
Previously, Cardwell said, performing a lockdown would require him to run to the office and press five buttons. It took 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 valuable, given that active shooter situations are over in five to six minutes, on average.
Cardwell said the system has multiple parameters. Most often, he said, staff used it to report seizures or other medical emergencies — about twice a month, on average.
The security upgrade comes at a time when school systems across the region grapple with ways to better protect students following a deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May that left 19 dead. The Mobile County public school system is considering arming resource officers. Schools in the city of Saraland will have an armed school resource officer in each school and adopt other security upgrades.
In Baldwin County, school officials said the Crisis Alert Network was not a response to Uvalde but part of an ever-evolving comprehensive safety plan. 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 it and has spent about $10 million in recent years on cameras, locking mechanisms and other security features.
“I am very proud that the Baldwin County Public School System and our board – we have set the bar high,” said Superintendent of Schools Eddie Tyler.
However, all the sophisticated security systems in the world can fail if the police do not do their job. The law enforcement response to the school shootings in Uvalde and Parkland, Florida in 2018 raised questions. Mack says he’s convinced his deputies would “run with guns” in the event of a mass shooting on a school campus.
“That’s the question everyone is asking, and I’m going to tell you this: I’m 100% confident, without a doubt, that our deputies and police are going to respond to this threat as immediately as possible.” he declared.
School resource officers are all 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 big threats,” he said. “They constantly deal with domestic issues that arise on our campus. Sheriff Mack and his deputies and our local law enforcement, they hear in our community what’s going on. They hear students. So they can avoid a lot of trouble.
Mack said being in schools all day allows resource officers to build trust with students on and off campus. It can pay dividends down the road,” he added.
“The relationship can’t just be on an eight-hour-a-day platform,” he said. “It must be much more than that.”
There aren’t a lot of statistics to rely on, and that’s a good thing, the sheriff said.
“The best ORS program is when you don’t hear much about it,” he said. “And that’s because there are interventions; there are caveats.
Mack gave a recent example. In the past two years, he said, a high school student tipped off the school’s resource officer that another student was bringing a gun to campus.
“And we actually pulled over this individual in the parking lot of this high school,” he said. “And it was an intervention, and that information passed from one child to another child. And this child had a relationship with the resource manager of this school.
The new school year begins on Wednesday.
Updated at 7:14 p.m. to include information about the Mobile County Schools Crisis Alert Network.
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