Wisconsin Districts Embracing Text Alerts for Communication, Safety

This week the superintendent of the Verona school district in Wisconsin pledged to automatically notify parents via texts or emails about any emergency situation going on in or around their children's schools. The pledge was in response to an FBI manhunt on May 2nd that locked down the local schools but left parents in the dark about what was going on.

WisconsinWatch.org hopes that Verona is the just the first of many. While school districts around the state use a number of methods to provide real-time information to parents, from email to phone calls, almost none take advantage of the most straight-forward and simplest way of all: text messaging. Parents can sign up for an emergency text alert system that will signal them when something's amiss in their area, but of the ten largest school districts in the state, none enroll the parents automatically.

Relying on parents to discover and sign up for the system has been a challenge. In Milwaukee, where more than 78,000 students attend school, only 4,300 cell phones are signed up for the emergency text message alert system.

With parents increasingly plugged in with smartphones and laptops, schools are under pressure to use new technology to stay in touch with parents.

When something bad happens at school, news travels fast. Cell phone pictures, texts and tweets emanate from the site and find their way to parents.

"With students and parents texting, information and misinformation gets out very rapidly," said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. "Rumors that used to take hours and days to get out take seconds and minutes."

Trump says that keeping parents in the loop would help emergency services as well by keeping phone lines, roads and parking lots free of panicked parents. The technology is there, Trump explains, and the schools need to learn to exploit it without delay.

Some districts are already taking steps to improve communications. Linnane reports that the Racine Unified School District recently included area-wide text messaging capabilities to its emergency notification system.

The reason behind the change? According to the district spokesperson Stacy Tapp, text messaging makes it much simpler to reach parents and guardians quicker in an emergency.

Besides texts, many school districts also use recorded voice calls, emails, website postings and social media to get out messages. Experts say the key is redundancy — the more channels, the more likely someone will get the message.

"If you want to get an emergency message out, you better use all available means," said Ellen Miller, a former television journalist who now works as a consultant with National School Safety and Security Services.

"Parents hate hearing something from the media that their own school failed to tell them about," Miller said.

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