Fulton County Schools
Fulton County Schools
March 17, 2023
Fulton County Schools is the county’s school district in Georgia on the outskirts of Atlanta. With over 90,000 students enrolled in 106 schools and more than 14,000 employees, it is the fourth largest school district in the state. We sat down with Paul Hildreth, Director of Safety and Security for Fulton County Schools, to talk about how his team needs to be able to anticipate disruptions and be proactive to keep such a large number of people out of harm's way and keep things running smoothly.
Note: Paul’s answers have been slightly edited for clarity and brevity but you can hear his full comments by watching the video.
What challenges do you face in keeping students and employees safe across an entire school district?
So, we have 106 schools in our district. To help you visualize it, if you think of the City of Atlanta and you think of a circle, that’s Highway 285 that goes around the city. Everything north and south of that inside Fulton County is Fulton County Schools. It’s about 86 miles from the farthest north school to the farthest south school, so it can be challenging to respond to something if you have to go through Atlanta, especially with traffic. We’ve got about 89,000 students in our district and 14,000 employees, so there are geographical challenges.
It takes a team. It takes a village, if you will, to make sure we have things in place everyday – our days very early. If you put a student on a school bus, we've already been to that school bus and maybe up to 2 hours prior because we have to go through the safety protocols and checks. Someone has to arrive at the school very early to prepare food, so we have to make sure they have an environment that’s conducive to preparing proper meals for students.
We do have events that occur in schools. We have fires that may occur in a school, whether they're intentional or accidental, things happen. Popcorn has burned many times in many buildings across our country. Most of that's just a bad smell, but there's other things that we have to work through as a school district to hopefully ensure that at the end of the day we can go home and say, “Well done, we did good today. Let's do this again tomorrow.”
What challenges did you face when manually monitoring for disruptive events?
I will say, it's horribly reactive. And what I mean by that is you're going to get notified by a parent or someone that there was an issue and then you’ve missed the opportunity to react in a proactive way. Then you're just reactive.
It really was just hitting refresh. It’s about finding the best tools, in this case social media monitoring, and bridging these pieces together so that you have the most effective response.
How have real-time crisis alerts improved your ability to get ahead of disruptions?
With the active shooters that we've seen on numerous occasions throughout this year on different campuses, the way that impacts me the greatest is information and knowledge. I'm not there experiencing the tragedy, but it will potentially begin to impact the climate as we think about what happened and why it happened.
In many cases, even in just our neighboring districts, I've been able to utilize samdesk just simply by when something happens. I'll get the alert that a school in such and such a city or county is on lockdown. What I love about it is I can click on it instantly and I can begin to see pictures of it as people post on social media. Sometimes it's police departments. They're letting people know what's going on and that lets me know what's going on. I can either follow up with it or begin to think about what we need to do to react to it just based on where it's at. So it's been tremendously advantageous from that perspective.
If you start looking at the number of posts, if you will, or the number of pictures that are involved, that's a quick indication to me of risk or how serious this probably is. So it's not just the initial notification, it's the ongoing observation and watching, and gaining that knowledge and intelligence so that we can best formulate if we need to respond and how we respond.
How has samdesk enabled your team to take a proactive approach to student safety?
Samdesk, and I'm not just saying this, is really amazing because it allows me to do two things. I can take a proactive approach, and I can go look and see what's going on. Or I can take a reactive approach when something happens.
I love that I'm able to go in and customize very specific alerts, especially around geography and proximity to our schools. It alerts me and it's incredibly useful, even with things like a water main break. How does that impact me? Well, if the water main break is next to a school and the water gets shut off, we've got food service that can be impacted and we've got sanitation that can become impacted and it can layer itself. It just allows a lot of peace of mind.
There's some things that you're doing with samdesk that allow me to not have to focus on samdesk, but be responsive to samdesk. It knocks on my door, if you will, with my cell phone and tells me something is happening. And I love that part about it because it’s very proactive. Sometimes I'll open up the program and just take a little bit of a deeper dive because knowing what's going on in my community and other communities can certainly have an impact on what happens in our local schools.
What is an example of using a real-time alert to get ahead of a crisis?
I'll give you a great example. About five years ago, there was an unfortunate plane accident that occurred on our perimeter, Highway 285, near PDK Airport in northeast Atlanta. It was nowhere even near us and we didn’t have any schools within probably 30 miles.
We quickly identified that’s a challenge for us because all of a sudden they had to close the interstate. We don't have school buses on the interstate, but we quickly recognized that once they start shutting down the highways, all of this traffic is going to be on the side streets – and that's where we do have schools. So it enables us to quickly take some actions to look at how this is going to impact transportation and getting kids home in proximity of that area. It was not more than an hour later – total gridlock.
That heads up about a plane crash that occurred on the opposite side of Atlanta, gave us the foresight to be able to look forward and say, what do we need to be thinking about now, how could it impact us? And we do that every day. There's some type of an alert I get every day that makes me think that way because of that specific incident.
I appreciate the efforts that samdesk has put into its programming because that enables us to have greater access to technology and helps keep 90,000 kids safe on a daily basis.
Check out the full conversation between Paul, and samdesk Founder and CEO James Neufeld on YouTube.