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Some teachers balk at school shooting app

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Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A new app is designed to save lives by pinpointing the exact location of a school shooting or other emergency. But it’s facing a major problem: Many people don’t want it on their phones.

In Broward County, just 16% of teachers and other eligible employees have downloaded the Alyssa’s Alert app, known as SaferWatch, in the two months it has been available.

Figures aren’t available in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, which are just starting to promote it. But participation is low statewide, officials said at a recent meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the Parkland Tragedy. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission, estimated that only about five people in any given school have the app on their phone.

The hesitancy is based on an inaccurate assumption that the app might be used to track employees, Broward school officials said. They say the app works only inside schools, nowhere else, and accesses location information only when the panic button on the app is pressed for several seconds.

Now school districts are launching aggressive campaigns to try to dispel fears and encourage more participation. The app manufacturer, SaferWatch, is also revising language in its user agreement to try to make people feel more comfortable.

“We’re in the process of making sure the misinformation is corrected and people have a deeper understanding of what this app does,” said Vickie Cartwright, interim superintendent in Broward County.

That effort includes partnering with the Broward Teachers Union to urge its member to download it.

“I’ve done some testing. I’ve taken it outside the parameters of a school to see if it works. No it doesn’t,” said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union. “It’s completely safe. This app is solely to protect lives.”

The app connects directly with a 911 communications center, and users can send messages to a dispatcher and photos from their phones. In some schools, the app can even automatically access cameras in the building where the alert came from.

The app is being used to comply with Alyssa’s Law, which the Legislature passed last year to require school districts to have some sort of mobile panic button. The state has allocated about $8 million for the program, which is free to districts as long as they use a state-approved vendor.

The law and the app are named after Alyssa Alhadeff, a student who was one of 17 people murdered in the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. Her mother, Broward School Board member Lori Alhadeff, lobbied legislators to pass the law.

“Time equals life. Alyssa’s Alert provides real-time two-way communication,” Alhadeff said in a news conference this week. “We will always honor and remember the 17 we lost that tragic day, but now with Alyssa’s Alert we may mitigate the next tragedy.”

Eric Garner, a TV production teacher at Stoneman Douglas, was there the day of the shooting. But he’s still been reluctant to download the app. He said he read the user agreement and had privacy concerns.

“There were some red flags. It talks about having access to camera roll and access to websites you’ve been on,” he said.

He voiced those concerns at a recent meeting of the Stoneman Douglas Commission, and the president of SaferWatch, Geno Roefaro, contacted him. Garner said the discussion went well.

“A lot of the things that were problematic came down to the verbiage. The app was not doing what it implied,” he said.

For example, it could access your photos and location information, but only when you were using it during an emergency, Garner said.

Roefaro, in an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, said he’s changing the language in the user agreement to clarify what the app does.

“If you’re a person who has never used our service and don’t know how it operates, I can totally understand you might have concerns,” he said.

Garner said he hadn’t downloaded the app yet but was now strongly considering it.

Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties also use the SaferWatch app and are in the early stages of promoting it.

“The application is being introduced to employees in a phased manner, starting with school site administrators,” said Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade schools. “Testing of the app’s functionality has taken place with all K-12 principals, in conjunction with the respective 911 centers.”

Miami-Dade is now working with other employee groups to deploy the app, she said.

Palm Beach County Schools have installed the app on all district devices, including laptops, spokeswoman Claudia Shea said. The district sent a note to high school employees about the app this week and will soon send notices to middle schools and then elementary schools, she said.

“Your participation in this program, while optional, is highly recommended,” the note said.

Michael Woods, a teacher at Santaluces High in Lantana, received the notice on Oct. 6, the same day a school shooting happened in Arlington, Texas. He downloaded it immediately.

Woods said he doesn’t have great cellphone reception but was pleased to learn the app works with wi-fi.

“In the event of an emergency and I wouldn’t be able to call 911, at least I would have a fighting chance,” he said.

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