Alamo Heights ISD teachers will be equipped with panic buttons in an effort to keep campuses safe. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This story has been updated.

Every teacher in the Alamo Heights Independent School District will soon be wearing a small badge with an embedded panic button, the latest upgrade in security technology and something that could soon be required in all Texas schools in response to mass shootings. 

A proposed rule by the Texas Education Agency and a bill filed in the state Legislature would make similar technology mandatory, as part of a growing push to secure schools in the wake of the Uvalde shooting last year. 

The TEA has also offered grant opportunities totaling more than $17.1 million to fund such technology.

According to TEA documents, several local districts received funding from the grant including $232,370 for Northside ISD and $60,950 for Judson ISD. Alamo Heights received $9,523 from the grant.

In recent years, Alamo Heights ISD has used a phone app to notify teachers during emergencies and to allow teachers to communicate when incidents occurred.

Frank Stanage, the director of human resources and the district emergency management coordinator, said the new technology provided by a company called Centegix will simplify the process. 

“When any staff member on campus initiates a lockdown alert … by pressing the button eight or more times, that automatically does a campus-wide lockdown,” he said. “The other thing it does is it automatically calls 911.” 

The Centegix CrisisAlert features a panic button with multiple functions.
The Centegix CrisisAlert features a panic button with multiple functions. Credit: Courtesy / Centegix

The previous application required an administrator to evaluate the situation before making the call to initiate a lockdown and decide whether to call 911, he said. 

“We feel like we’re trained well enough where we had a good system before but now with Centegix because it’s all automated, that cuts down the response time for first responders,” Stanage said. 

In addition to initiating a lockdown, the button will trigger a system of strobe lights, an announcement over the intercom and a “work station takeover” that pops up emergency procedures on all work stations campus-wide, according to Centegix Regional Vice President Carly Smith.

For more standard emergencies, including emergency medical needs, or a fight breaking out in a classroom, teachers can press the button three times to call for help. 

Stanage said he expects about 90% of alerts to be in the standard emergency category. A recent report by Centegix found that 98% of alerts also fall into this category. 

The Alamo Heights Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the district, is picking up the $184,000 tab for the technology, Stanage said.

“The Alamo Heights School Foundation agreed to cover the start-up cost of the new alert notification system before TEA offered the grant to school districts,” according to a statement from the district Thursday.” “Now that we have the $9,523 TEA grant, we will use that amount toward additional costs of the project.”

Training and testing is already taking place, Stanage said, and the goal is to have the technology in place by spring break. 

Phone panic buttons take more time

Vulnerabilities in previous panic buttons and applications are why Centegix founder Daniel Dooley developed the wearable device shortly after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, which left 17 people dead.  

“Sitting down with superintendents from across the country, it was like a deer in the headlights” moment, he said. “They were like ‘We’re spending all this money to keep people out of schools, but we don’t have a solution when they get in’ — and they are getting in.” 

Phone applications require teachers to stop and locate their phone, open the app and trigger a response, all while in a panicked state, Dooley said. With a wearable, that process is eliminated, saving time.

After an initial start in eight districts, the demand exploded, Dooley said, with many incidents highlighting the need for an increase in response time and location accuracy. 

“In other products … it gave you a general idea of where the event was happening, but you didn’t know exactly where,” he said.

Smith, the regional vice president for the company, said the technology uses low data rate Bluetooth technology to provide pinpoint location accuracy. 

“If a teacher needed help, the administration at that campus would know who needs help and where they are with precise location accuracy,” she said. “So not just the left side of the building … but actually room 202, or on the playground, or in the parking lot.” 

This is important, according to a report by the company, since 47% of incidents reported in the fall of 2022 occurred outside the classroom.

Stanage, the Alamo Heights ISD official, said the district had considered the risk of students getting a hold of the badges — and already has policies in place that train teachers to protect against such an act. 

“What it comes down to is making sure that and we reiterate this for staff, to maintain positive control of their ID badges,” he said. “All of our staff members also have an RFID ID badge that has their picture on it and it allows them to gain access to the doors by holding it up to a proximity reader and punching in their code.”

Alyssa’s law being considered in Texas

The district has a history of being a step ahead of state requirements when it comes to school safety, including implementing threat assessment teams at each campus before it was mandated by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, according to Stanage.

A proposed Texas Education Agency rule would mandate a number of security upgrades, including panic buttons. But before that rule was proposed, state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, introduced legislation that would make the devices mandatory by law.

“What we’re seeking to do with the Texas Legislature is to codify that to make it permanent,” she said. “Rules can be changed at any given time, the makeup of the committee or the board that promulgated the rule could change that rule. What HB 669 does is make this a permanent law.”

In dedication to one of the students killed in Parkland, Alyssa Alhadeff, the bill is being called “Alyssa’s Law,” one of several introduced across the country. Thierry told the San Antonio Report she was approaching the bill as a mom.

“I’m the mother of a 10-year-old daughter,” she said. “And just like so many other parents in Texas and across the country, I was and continue to be sick and exhausted and tired of watching mass shootings … and also watching so little preparation done to protect our kids.” 

Thierry said the panic button is just one component of a layered system needed to ensure protection, adding that the measure has bipartisan support.

The legislation made it out of the House last session but not out of the Senate. With bipartisan support and recent statewide focus on school safety, Thierry said she is confident it will pass this time around. 

“Our schools are our least secure government-owned building with our most vulnerable population,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to me to make much sense that our courthouses, our airports, even as I sit right now, today, in our state Capitol, I have more protection than my child does 160 miles away … in school. It seems to me it would be the opposite, that the most vulnerable population would have the most level of protection.”