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Panic buttons serve as worthy alternatives to armed educators

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In the aftermath of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many American schools increased security. According to The Wall Street Journal, over 400 schools across the country recently installed permanent panic buttons behind desks or placed mobile buttons in the hands of school administrators. These buttons can alert authorities or security companies, send text messages to staff, or sound school alarms in the event of an emergency. The West Vine Street School in Stonington, Conn. recently installed a panic button system that will even automatically close doors in the school, according to Stonington local newspaper The Day.

The need for increased security was reaffirmed last Tuesday, when 20-year-old Michael Hill entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Atlanta, Ga. with firearms. It is likely that he would have caused harm had a staff member not talked him out of his deadly intentions. While panic buttons may not offer the same protection as the armed guards that many have suggested, these devices are a more economically feasible and less controversial form of student protection.

According to The Wall Street Journal, panic buttons can be installed in schools for $300 to $800 each. The system placed recently in the West Vine Street School, which lies about 75 miles from Newtown, cost $10,000 and includes buttons in classrooms, according to The Day. In contrast, the median pay for an individual police officer is $55,010 annually, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. Based on these costs, hiring armed guards may cost school districts over $45,000 more than the initial installation of panic buttons. Hiring more than one guard per school dramatically increases that price difference. Although there are operating costs associated with panic buttons, their total cost is much less than the cost of hiring armed officers. For example, panic buttons installed in six schools and two administrative buildings in Apache Junction, Ariz. will have an annual operating cost of only $4,000 a year on top of their initial cost, according to ABC15 Arizona.

The introduction of panic buttons may be a welcome alternative to armed guards in a country where cash-strapped schools are abundant; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 37 states provided less funding for the 2011­–12 academic year than they did for the 2010–11 academic year. While guards may provide more visible protection than panic buttons, many school districts may not be able to justify the cost of guards compared to the lower cost of panic buttons.

The visible presence of armed guards may even have detrimental effects on students. A study by the Youth & Society journal conducted in 2011 found that armed guards on school premises made some students feel less safe. While the presence of armed guards on elementary school grounds may provide reassurance for parents and community members, the constant visible reminder of possible threats may be harmful to some students’ psychological well-being, whereas the less obtrusive nature of panic buttons would help the devices go generally unnoticed by students.

Many have suggested that teachers, rather than officers, should be equipped with firearms, but this solution also has problems. A report by the School Improvement Network conducted in January found that about 7,720 of 10,661 teachers — 72.4 percent — said they would be unlikely to bring a firearm to school if they could. Teachers themselves must be comfortable carrying firearms if they are going to be armed. Even if they were comfortable, educators would also have to learn how to properly use these firearms and complete further training as security measures change over time. Some teachers have completed training courses that lasted as little as six hours, according to the Daily Mail. This small amount of training will not prepare teachers to properly handle their weapons during an emergency situation. Panic buttons are not dangerous weapons and do not require extensive training, making them a viable solution for security this fall. It must also be noted that it was a staff member who was able to relate to others, and not armed personnel, who stopped the would-be shooter in Atlanta.

Admittedly, panic buttons may not provide the same level of first-line protection as armed personnel. However, they are a relatively uncontroversial method of security that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively to give elementary-school educators another defense in their arsenal for ensuring child safety.