Panic Buttons in Schools – What School Security Assessments Show Us

Our analysts have been pleased to note that far more K12 schools are installing duress buttons than in the past.  Commonly called “panic” buttons, duress buttons allow school staff to communicate an emergency to a call monitoring center or in some cases directly to school security, school police or even 911 centers in rare cases.  During the more than forty school security assessment projects our analysts have conducted this year, we have found that the majority of our public and non-public school clients either have recently installed or were receptive to our recommendations that they should install panic buttons.  This is a stark contrast to what we have found assessing thousands of K12 schools over the years.  We feel this indicates significant progress in school security.

Our analysts are however, finding a very common gap when panic buttons have been installed in schools.  During controlled one-on-one crisis simulations, we have regularly found that the reasons school employees activate the panic buttons does not match the expectations of law enforcement officers.  For example, when responding to a video scenario of an agitated visitor brandishing a claw hammer or a large knife, many staff correctly state they would press the button (though a surprising number say they would not because the aggressor does not have a gun).  However, when we query local law enforcement officers who would respond to the panic button activation, they routinely tell us the buzzers are installed for active shooter situations and that they would respond accordingly.  In addition, a surprising number of school office employees responding to a scenario involving a fire state they would activate the panic button not realizing that only law enforcement officers would be dispatched. Relating to this, we have found that the majority of test subjects do not realize they should also call 911 to provide more detail if the situation allows them to do so.

There are a number of very robust panic button systems which are tied to security cameras and audio allowing dispatch, security and/or 911 center personnel to see and/or hear what is going on in an area where the panic button is activated.  However, the majority of systems installed by schools lack these features.

We recommend that schools that install panic buttons provide employees with written guidance on their use and some form of staff development to better prepare them for situations where they might be used in an emergency.  Of course, these efforts should be properly documented and all panic buttons should be tested on a regular basis.


About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.