Smart schools: What’s new in school safety apps

Whether you are the school resource officer on campus or an off-campus responder, access to current information regarding a critical incident is essential


Police1 or author Mike Walker were not paid to review any of these apps and this article is not an official endorsement of any app or company.

While the current school year looks a little different than anticipated due to COVID-related school closures, it is still important for school districts, law enforcement and parents to address concerns about school safety. As it turns out, “there’s an app for that.”

College students, K-12 students, parents, administrators and public safety officials all have their own particular concerns for student and campus safety.

Active shooter and other mass violence incidents, as well as bomb threats, severe weather events, fires/fire drills and COVID-19 tracking are all incidents that can be better managed and mitigated through the use of apps.

Many smartphone apps can give students almost instant contact with friends, parents and public safety.
Many smartphone apps can give students almost instant contact with friends, parents and public safety. (Getty Images)

We’ve surveyed the landscape and found that there are a lot of school safety app options available that address those concerns. Here’s a short list of things to consider, as well as those apps we think you may find helpful.

College and K-12 students and parents

As we begin our discussion of different “apps,” let’s bear in mind that we are discussing different software applications – basically computer programs. Some apps will work across a variety of computer devices, while others are exclusive to smartphones.

Let’s consider a smartphone school safety app for students since most students already have one and carry it with them wherever they go. The two main smartphone operating systems are either Apple or Android, so we need to ensure that we have an app that is compatible.

Personal safety while away from home is a major concern for students and parents. Many of the smartphone apps we reviewed can give students almost instant contact with friends, parents and public safety. Automatic notifications can be sent if the phone leaves a specific area or “geo-fence,” as well as “one-touch” features that can be set up to send an alert if the user taps the screen, shakes the phone, or subtly removes their finger from the phone screen.

Other features include sending maps and location information, audio and video files, and prepared text messages. These features can also be used by students in distress due to allergies or medical conditions.

Many of these apps come with endorsements from various groups and universities and several were developed by students and staff members. Some require a small download fee, but many are free.

Examples of this type of smartphone app include:  

School administrators

Since most school administrators, faculty and staff usually work from a classroom or office, there are many apps that are made for tablet, desktop and laptop computers.

When considering an app, school administrators look for campus-wide situational awareness and notification, staff and student accountability, visitor management, CCTV camera integration and most importantly the ability to digitally and physically “lockdown” or shelter in place at the campus.

Most of the apps we looked at require a download/installation fee and several have small annual fees. Some are for single campus use, while others are capable of linking several schools with one another, as well as the school system central office. Some require internet or WiFi access and some do not. Most offer a “panic button” feature to automatically notify public safety and also have digital dashboards with links to floor plans and incident response plans available to staff and first responders.

Examples of administrator-purposed school safety apps include:

Public safety

Whether you are the school resource officer on campus or an off-campus responder, access to current information regarding a critical incident is essential. Information such as the nature of the call, involved parties, campus points of contact and real-time updates, as well as the ability to use the app on a device in your vehicle and on your smartphone, are all essential features of a public safety app.

The Hero 911 app can be downloaded on an officer’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Basically, the app pushes real-time notification of any active shooter reports within a 20-mile radius, similar to an Amber alert. If you acknowledge that you are responding, the app will push additional updates about the situation, as well as Google map overlays, notification of other responding officers and if they are on duty or off duty. The goal is to have all available officers respond as quickly as possible with up to date situational information. The app is free to download.

A similar app is available from In Force911. Threat notifications are sent by any teacher or school staff member to the app, which then notifies all designated law enforcement. The app can be used across mobile phones, tablets, or laptop computers. Real-time info is sent using a text type format that is not dependent on cell phone lines, which can become swamped during an emergency incident. Radio interoperability is also not an issue, so state, county and local officers are all notified of the same information at the same time and can engage in two-way exchanges of information with one another, as well as school staff on scene. This app does charge a small fee for each user agency.

School Security First connects police, staff and parents by allowing any school staff member to activate an emergency alert that notifies police and everyone on campus who has the app. The location and type of emergency is provided and then updated in real-time should the location change. An “All Clear” can be sent to users at the conclusion of the incident. The app also has a GPS feature that when activated notifies a parent of their child’s location and is accurate to within five feet.

SaferWatch is a similar app that allows users, which can be anyone on campus, to quickly report incidents with the app, which automatically sends the user’s location and profile, including medical and emergency contact info. The app instantly notifies law enforcement and administrators. A mass notification is then sent so everyone on campus can take the appropriate safety precautions.

Conclusion

A variety of school safety apps are available with more being developed all the time. The apps are developed with the needs of specific groups in mind – students, parents, administrators and public safety. Some are free and some are fee-based and each app is designed to work with a designated operating platform.

Hopefully, the school safety apps discussed here can help you decide on the one which is most appropriate for you and the ones you protect. Stay safe.

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