Panic button ‘could have prevented’ teacher attack, says union leader

Eldorado High School in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

On the heels of a brutal attack against a teacher earlier this month, the Clark County School District will begin implementing panic button devices for teachers and staff to immediately be able to contact administrators or first responders for help.

The district made the announcement last week that it would begin updating its classroom communications and fixing its broken camera systems, following the news that a 16-year-old student was arrested on charges of sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder of an Eldorado High School teacher.

The executive director of the state’s largest teachers union said the new safety measures were requested by Eldorado staff directly following the attack.

Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita told The Review-Journal that he met with Eldorado teachers the day after the attack. The idea for staff to have something similar to a Life Alert lanyard or button was something that came directly from the educators, he said.

Vellardita also said he met more than once with the Eldorado teacher who was attacked.

“Had she had what we’re talking about in her possession, it could have prevented what she went through, if she had an instant emergency alert system on her body that she could press,” Vellardita said of the new panic buttons. “That’s the difference maker.”

The district has seen escalating incidents of violence on its campuses this school year, culminating in the Eldorado attack.

The Clark County School District – the fifth largest in the country – has seen 5,700 calls for service regarding fights, batteries or assaults and 1,300 combined incidents where arrests and citations had been issued on school campuses since the start of the school year, according to CCSD Police Chief Mike Blackeye.

According to Superintendent Jesus Jara, teachers already use a tool called audio enhancement in the classroom. In a press conference last week, the superintendent said a panic-button feature is included with the audio enhancement devices, and that he had spoken with the CEO of the company who makes the devices and is expediting the panic-button feature, where it will roll out at Eldorado High School first.

A district spokesperson said the audio enhancement tool is worn by teachers to project their voices in the classroom. The district did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how much the devices would cost to purchase.

But Ryan Fromoltz, an English, media and speech teacher at Las Vegas High School, questioned whether teachers would see the devices before the end of the school year and whether the district’s Board of Trustees would approve the purchase of the devices at their next board meeting on April 28.

The district did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the timeline of the rollout.

Vellardita said he was told the district would begin rolling out the devices as soon as possible, based on the arrangement with the district’s vendor.

Classrooms are already equipped with a panic button in the event of emergencies, but Fromoltz says the response can be slow because campuses are already short-staffed.

“Schools are short hall monitors, they’re short secretaries, administrators, teachers,” he said. “Most of the time because we’re short-staffed, the response is slow because we don’t have enough people.”

Fromoltz asked for more clarity about whether individual schools, districts or police dispatchers would be in charge of manning the line.

A district the size of Clark County pilots many alert systems to notify the police dispatch center about incidents at the school, according to Blackeye. Those systems are tested monthly by principals at each campus, he said.

Most of the district’s 18,700 classrooms have telephones that staff can use to put the school into lockdown if necessary, and a school police unified radio system that gives each district principal a radio to reach police dispatch centers was used to contact police during the attack at Eldorado, according to the police chief.

But Vicki Kreidel, a second-grade teacher and president of the National Education Association of Southern Nevada, expressed concerns over false alarms that could be triggered if the new panic buttons are inadvertently pressed by students.

The district announced last week that, in addition to distributing the new panic button features, it would assess and update its camera systems.

When it comes to updating cameras, Superintendent Jara said the upgrades may take “a little bit of time,” but that the district would get there for its staff to feel safe.

“This is a challenge on how we fund K-12 education,” Jara said. “The cameras, they’re outdated and we are going to find the resources within the Clark County School District to protect our employees. That work has already started.”

As schools return from spring break, some schools will also see a stronger police presence based on data the district has about the number of violent incidents that have occurred at each campus, according to Jara.

But Fromoltz, the teacher, said he doesn’t think the panic buttons will solve the root cause of the violence. The district hasn’t put children’s emotional needs ahead of learning, he said.

“We’ve failed, we’ve failed as a district to do that, and now we’re seeing the consequences of it,” he said. “I think we weren’t doing as much as we could, but the pandemic showed that we failed worse than we even imagined.”

But Vellardita said the union knows firsthand that the 18,000 educators it represents want these changes implemented immediately, particularly in middle and high schools.

He reiterated that the teachers union is supportive of the measures, but that they’ve also been clear with the district that it has to start now on implementing the changes.

“The burden is now on the superintendent and the school district to successfully implement these things,” Vellardita said. “Our agreement with the district is that this has to take place, and we’re going to work with the district to make it successful.

“But we’re also going to hold the district accountable to make sure these needed changes take place as soon as possible, and in some cases, immediately, where it can be done.”

Contact Lorraine Longhi at llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow @lolonghi on Twitter.