Schools upgrade outreach system for emergencies

Arapahoe incident revealed need for changes in system

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Glitches revealed in the Douglas County School District's emergency communications during the Arapahoe High School shooting prompted a dramatic reworking of the system.

With the new SchoolMessenger system, the time it takes to send texts is 34 times faster than with the previous system. Emails are moving at 26 times the speed they did with the previous system, and voicemail is reaching its destination in half the time, DCSD's internal communications officer Randy Barber told the board of education during its June 3 meeting.

“We did test our website, Facebook and Twitter feeds and had good results with those as well,” Barber said.

It's a huge improvement from the time required to send emergency communications on Dec. 13, 2013 — the day of a shooting incident at Arapahoe High School in Centennial that left two students dead. That day, DCSD's system was overwhelmed by heavy traffic. Emails about DCSD's response that were supposed to reach parents shortly after the incident arrived three or more hours later, eliciting a flood of complaints.

Douglas County's schools were on lockout status after the shooting, which means staff was on heightened alert, perimeter doors were locked, and visitors were required to use the main entrances and show identification before entering the buildings.

“We had delivery failure during the Arapahoe shooting,” said Barber, calling the situation unacceptable. “Obviously, this was a very poignant moment in which we had sent messaging to all of our schools. We had principal reports coming back (that) they were not getting messages. The wheel on our computer is spinning and nothing was going out, or very few messages were going out.”

Barber said SchoolMessenger, already used by many other school districts, is time-tested and reliable. DCSD conducted tests of the system in late December, February and May.

“Obviously, there is not a lot of time to waste here,” he said. “We wanted to be ready if there was an actual emergency in our schools.”

The new system will cost about $15,000 more than the old one, but school officials said the added expense is warranted.

“Although SchoolMessenger brings a slight increase in cost to the district, the efficiency and effectiveness gained regarding emergency communications is well worth it to ensure timely notifications to parents and staff,” reads an email from DCSD public information office Paula Hans.

Total cost for the SchoolMessenger service during the 2014-15 academic year will be about $90,000. That reflects a DCSD-negotiated reduction in cost from $2.50 per student to $1.27 per student.

In 2013-14, DCSD paid about $74,500 for the previous service, Shoutpoint.

Shoutpoint provided emergency communications as part of DCSD's Infinite Campus system. Though SchoolMessenger replaces Shoutpoint, Infinite Campus still will be used to track attendance and school records.