In the event that a shooting were to take place at one of Palo Alto Unified School District's 17 campuses, teachers would follow a long-held safety procedure: Rush to tape a color-coded piece of paper to the outside of their classroom doors to indicate the safety or lack thereof inside the room (green means "all are safe and accounted for," red means "immediate help is needed"); close the doors (they lock from the outside); turn off the lights and gather quietly with their students to wait for law enforcement to arrive. They might think to call 911; they might not.
To Mike Jacobs, a Palo Alto parent and longtime Palo Alto Unified maintenance employee, this process is archaic, inefficient and unsafe.
"In a day and age like today where we have so much technology at our fingertips, it's not practical," Jacobs said. "We can make these (procedures) so much better."
And so, this spring, Jacobs founded Safeguard School Systems, hoping to bring school safety into the 21st century with the invention of a device that streamlines communication in the event of an on-campus emergency.
The Safeguard Notifier, a discreet, small black box that Jacobs hopes will be mounted outside classrooms above their doors, is equipped with a small LED light to replace the color-coded card system. It similarly flashes green if all inside are safe; blue if not everyone is accounted for (for example, a student may have gone to the restroom before the campus lockdown began); red if assistance is needed. The red light is accompanied by a loud Piezo horn that can immediately alert law enforcement where they need to go first.
The second the device is activated teachers do this with the push of a single button on a key fob that they can hang from a lanyard or key chain multiple things happen. A call is automatically placed to 911. The door is locked with a 1,200-pound electromagnetic door locking system (that weight is the minimum). Schools can opt to have cameras installed in classrooms; if so, they are also instantaneously activated to provide first responders real-time monitoring.
"To think that we can close the door, turn off our lights, lock everything up and act like no one's home and think that that's sufficient enough, it's not," Jacobs said. "What we're doing is we're leaving our law enforcement professionals in the dark. When they arrive at the scene, they don't know what to do. There's no communication. They don't know if the shooter is in a room; they don't know if the folks in the classrooms are OK."
Jacobs, a father of three young children, said in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he felt compelled to do something to improve school safety.
"I just thought to myself, 'Something's got to change,'" he said.
So Jacobs, a maintenance/operations foreman with expertise in the electrical field, invented the simple emergency-response device. He has spent time talking to local law enforcement, teachers, administrators and students about what they would like to see in such a system to ensure it meets all of their needs.
"What are the challenges that they're facing? What are some of the things they don't like about the procedures that are in place? One of the common problems that teachers have with current procedures is that they do have to run to the door and lock the door themselves," Jacobs said.
Jacobs is continuing these discussions and said he's meeting with a recently retired Bay Area police chief next month to discuss a potential partnership.
Much of Safeguard's work is also informed by a 2004 school safety report issued by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on preventing school violence. A major takeaway from the report is that schools should no longer approach school safety passively, said Safeguard partner and advisory board member Robert Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a corporate recruiter and father with a military background, is a longtime friend of Jacobs. He said knowing Jacobs as someone who works passionately with and for youth, from participating in youth outreach programs to working with troubled teenagers, made him immediately want to join the Safeguard team.
"Eventually, when a teacher communicates the condition of their room, that specific condition notification will reach the 911 dispatch level," Jacobs said. "Dispatch can then communicate those conditions to officers without even having to speak to teachers directly. Those officers will also be able to log into our software directly from their squad cars and make risk-informed decisions with real-time visuals into each area. The more confusion that we're able to eliminate, the less time an attacker has to hurt someone."
The company has yet to officially approach Palo Alto Unified, or any district, to roll out the Safeguard Notifier. The company is still "in the seed stage of the seed stage," Gonzalez joked, and struggling to find funding.
"We want to take this and we want to be able to productize it," Gonzalez said. "The major hurdle that we're having right now is investors."
The company launched an ambitious crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo early last month, hoping to raise $150,000 by Dec. 5. The funds would help the company expand its hardware and software capabilities and pay for a pilot installation at a Bay Area school, a test they want to do free of cost but which would involve costs for manufacturing, installation, operating, permits and more.
Jacobs and Gonzalez see themselves as pioneers in the still emerging field of school-safety technology. Across the nation, some companies and schools have looked at implementing automated communication systems. Just this week, 20 public schools in New York tested out a system that links school radios, phones and mobile devices to emergency-dispatch systems and allows school officials to instantly share video, audio or other data with law enforcement. Other organizations are checking out smartphone applications that target emergency response. But Jacobs and Gonzalez see Safeguard Notifier as a more comprehensive, all-encompassing system, and they said they are ready to roll it out so that kids are as safe as possible.
"We want to take this (to schools)," Gonzalez said. "It's real. ... We want to bring it out to the market and make it a reality for schools."