School system looking into immediate alert system for parents

Published 11:51 pm Monday, May 24, 2010

The Shelby County school system is discussing ways to immediately alert parents in emergencies, such as when a man recently discharged a firearm outside two Chelsea schools.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Tom Ferguson said the largest current obstacle to such an alert system is cost.

Ferguson said that 18 months ago, the school system looked at a free alert system that would provide automated phone calls and emails to parents. However, the system also had a clear downside — it would send periodic ads to users. School officials didn’t want to make that trade-off, he said.

“(Alert program) costs are based on use. We’ve got 20-something thousand students here. We’re just not in a position right now to make that investment,” he said. “We’ve been looking at emergency notification systems. We’ve piloted emergency notification systems. We just haven’t gotten to a point where we’ve budgeted it.”

Even though rumors proliferated in the community during the Chelsea situation, Ferguson said the system’s prime objective was to keep children safe.

“Students were on lockdown, teachers and administrators were on lockdown. They were not in a position to type out emails or to take phone calls. I think that was the main area of stress for parents,” he said. “They wanted to know the school was not in imminent danger.”

He said in that particular situation, school officials were not able to give out information because they didn’t have any concrete facts.

“The Sheriff’s Department was taking care of the outside of the school. It wasn’t their role to come to the door and say, ‘Let me let you know what’s going on,’” Ferguson said. “The issue we’re looking at is, at what point should we have given out information to the parents? And what information should have been given? That will always be a case by case situation.”

However, Ferguson acknowledged parents should be told their children are safe.

“At what point could we have said, ‘There’s not an imminent threat to the school’? That’s what parents wanted to hear,” he said.

LouAnne Moore, a Columbiana parent, said she doesn’t think parents always need to be immediately notified of lockdown situations.

“I think sometimes parents get upset and overreact,” she said. “I think it would be easier for things to get out of control, because a lot of parents would panic.”

Parents can contact their child’s school to be put on an e-mail listserv for school announcements. Ferguson said system officials are discussing how to better use the listservs and school system website to keep parents in the loop.