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The systems were financed through a state grant program established after a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Some school districts in Wisconsin are installing gunshot detection systems, part of safety and security upgrades funded by a state grant program established after a February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Depending on the model, the systems can detect gunshots, direct students and faculty to safety and allow law enforcement to access camera feeds to determine the exact location of an active shooter.
“In an emergency, people start that fight-or-flight response, but the 911 call doesn’t necessarily come as fast,” said Tanya Ruder, a spokeswoman for the Kenosha Unified School District in eastern Wisconsin, which is in the process of installing the technology in its 43 schools. “This is not a preventative measure, but if [a shooting] were to occur it would help get police into the building faster and stop the person more quickly.”
The sensors are typically used by law enforcement to track gun violence in areas of cities where police want to monitor potential gunfire. It’s a relatively new idea for schools, though more districts are embracing the technology after the Parkland shooting, where 17 people died.
In Wisconsin, that technology can be paid for using state money, thanks to a $100 million school safety grant initiative established at the request of Gov. Scott Walker in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
The money cannot be retroactively applied to previous security improvements or to pay for personnel, so schools can’t use a grant to hire additional security guards or school resource officers. But most everything else, including gunshot detection technology, is fair game.
The Kenosha Unified School District was the first to tap into the state funding, receiving a $888,788 grant in June. Applying was an easy decision, Ruder told Route Fifty, as school officials had already been having conversations about how to enhance security.
“I think Parkland was just the one that was the tipping point that created a new level of fear; of making it not, ‘That will never happen here,’ to, ‘When is that going to happen to us?’” she said. “As a school district, we’re trying to do everything we can to put measures in place that will try to prevent anything from happening or, if it does happen, to try to lessen the impact.”
The grant money funded a host of security upgrades, including an enhanced visitor identification system and protective film for doors and windows that renders glass more or less shatterproof, along with mental-health and trauma training for faculty and staff. But the gunshot detection system, clocking in at roughly $384,000, was by far the biggest-ticket item.
The district had previously installed a similar system in its administration building to get a handle on how the technology worked. A safety liaison conducted tests to make sure the sensors could properly distinguish between gunshots and other loud noises (books being dropped, for example).
“His team slammed doors and banged baseball bats trying to trick it,” Ruder said. “We were impressed with the accuracy of the equipment.”
For district-wide implementation, Kenosha Unified selected a system manufactured by New Mexico-based EAGL Technology. Upon detecting a gunshot, the system sets off an emergency notification program that verbally alerts staff via the telephone system to the presence of somebody firing a gun, encouraging students and faculty to either evacuate or head to the nearest safe zone. (The specific message depends on the location of a shooter—people would not be told to evacuate if doing so places them in a shooter's path, for example.) It also activates blue emergency lights to alert hearing-impaired individuals to the threat, and to ensure that students in noisier places (the gym, the cafeteria) do not miss an announcement.
Kenosha’s local call center doesn’t accept automated calls, so the system won’t dial 911 on its own, Ruder said. But the alert does encourage staff members to call 911, which in turn allows law enforcement to access camera feeds inside the school to determine the location of the shooter before dispatching help to the scene.
“They can use the system and cameras to more readily locate the shooter within the building based on where the shots were fired or detected,” Ruder said. “They’ll be able to get into the building and stop them faster than they might otherwise be able to.”
The district has thus far not heard from parents and residents about the security upgrades, Ruder said, most likely due to the timing—the grant money was awarded during summer break, and most of the installation will be finished before school reconvenes in the fall.
“We’ve gotten media attention, and people have left positive comments on those pieces saying that they appreciate the district’s effort to do all they can,” she said. “But we haven’t had any direct feedback.”
But district officials have heard from their counterparts in other areas of the state. Because Kenosha Unified was one of the first districts to apply for the grant funding, officials there have advised other administrators on their applications and proposals.
“They were calling to try to figure out what we put in our grant applications and also where we had learned about the different technologies,” Ruder said. “What did we apply for? How are we going to use it? We’ve also had quite a few calls from across the nation since we were awarded the grant from people wondering about the gunshot detection system.”
School districts across Wisconsin were encouraged to apply for the grant program, but about $45 million remained after the first round of funding. The state announced late last month that it would reopen applications for a second round of awards. It’s unclear whether Kenosha Unified will submit a second application, Ruder said, though it’s possible.
“We wish there was a perfect answer to the problem of school shootings, and there isn’t,” she said. “But in the meantime we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we have everything possible in place—but of course we have to do it within our means. So that’s what the grant provides us—the opportunity to put more things in place.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.