How Kalamazoo Public Schools Used Grant Funding to Improve Communication Technology

Published: June 4, 2024Episode #97
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Communication failures have played a significant role in many school tragedies. During the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, officers with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Coral Springs Police Department were unable to communicate with each other when attempts to merge radio traffic from the two agencies into a common radio channel failed. The emergency radio system froze from excessive traffic, forcing police officers to communicate with hand signals.

Surveillance footage from the attack was also on a 26-minute delay, leading police to believe the gunman was still in the building long after he had fled the scene.

During the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, alerts sent out to teachers and faculty using a smartphone app were impeded by several factors, including low-quality internet service. Emergency calls placed inside the school were sent to the Uvalde Police Department, which operates separately from the district police, delaying the exchange of vital information.

While we can’t fully prevent human and technological errors, there are ways to improve emergency response without breaking the bank.

Donald Webster, Chief of Campus Safety at Kalamazoo Public Schools and a 2024 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist, turned to several available grants to help improve communication technology throughout his district.

Michigan State Police Competitive School Safety Grant

Writing the proposals himself, one of the grants Webster successfully applied for was the Michigan State Police Competitive School Safety Grant (1:44). Webster used the grant money to upgrade the district’s two-way radio system from analog to digital.

“I think one of the most important things when we talk about school safety, the number one thing is communication in a crisis,” he said. “This change allowed us to replace our obsolete system. It provided us with the opportunity to designate multiple channels in a crisis, and allowed us to communicate more smoothly and eliminate that congestive flow of traffic that we were having on an analog system.”

Award money was also used to replace some of the district’s old public address (PA) systems and install flush-mount speakers. Most importantly, says Webster, the grant allowed for the implementation of a campus-wide paging system.

“When we talk about the campus-wide paging system, prior to having that grant, we didn’t have anything out at our events, at our football fields, baseball field, basketball courts, parking lots, our bus loops,” Webster described. “Now we’re able to communicate in a crisis situation. If we had to do a lockdown, we are able to move folks.”

U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office Grant

The second grant Webster successfully applied for was the COPS Office Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (4:35). Before winning this grant, two of the district’s largest high schools did not meet the minimum radio coverage requirements.

“Most police agencies across the country operate on a 700-800 megahertz radio system. The way schools are designed with so much glass and brick around it, it was hard for our school resources officers to communicate to law enforcement,” said Webster. “To enhance that coverage, we applied for the grant and I was able to put in some bi-directional amplifiers that boost the radio frequencies.”

Grant Writing Challenges and Tips

Webster’s biggest tip regarding writing technology grant applications is ensuring it articulates the problems the school or district is trying to solve and how those problems would be solved with technology (5:43).

“Kalamazoo Public Schools is a large school district, and trying to find time to craft a thorough grant is hard to do sometimes. I’ve got 25 K-12 buildings, and so it is finding that time to actually gather the information from the different buildings, trying to understand what technology they need in those buildings,” he said. “When you’re writing a grant, you run into problems because trying to figure out is it a technology thing you need or is it staffing that you need? And just always determining what buildings need what. Things that are occurring across the country are driving technology, so finding the right technology for your buildings and finding out the best-fit technology that you need for your building [is key]. Those are kind of the problems that you run into when you’re looking at preparing a grant document.”

Relationship-Based Security Takes Precedent at Kalamazoo Public Schools

While technology is critical in emergency response, Webster prides himself on what he calls “relationship-based security” (9:17).

“It is about building relationships with our students, our staff, our community partners, and our families because that’s who we get our information from,” said Webster. “I have utilized over 30 years of connections to the community and my relationship building to support my long-term and short-term goals at KPS about building relationships with our students, staff, and our community.”

Hear more about his part of the conversation starting at 9:39.

The interview transcript is below.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

 


TRANSCRIPT

Amy Rock (00:55): Hi everyone. Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Campus Safety Voices podcast. I’m Amy Rock, Campus Safety’s executive editor, and joining me today is Donald Webster, chief of campus safety at Kalamazoo Public Schools and one of this year’s K-12 Director of the Year finalist. We all know anyone in your role, Donald, or similar is more than busy. So thank you for being with me today. I really appreciate it.

Donald Webster (01:18): Thank you for having me.

Amy Rock (01:20): Now let’s get right into the questions that I wanted to ask. We’ve seen in so many major school incidents that communication issues played a role in emergency response and in some situations significantly delayed response time. In your role, you recently applied and received two grants that helped you improve communication in your district. Can you discuss the two grants that you applied for, what you chose to use the money for and why?

Donald Webster (01:44): Yes. So Kalamazoo Public Schools applied and received two grants. One was the Michigan State Police Competitive School Safety Grant, and the other one was from the U.S. Department of Justice, their COPS division. And so the Michigan State Competitive Safety Grant allowed us to upgrade our two-way radio system from analog to digital, which is very important. I think one of the most important things when we talk about school safety, the number one thing is communication in a crisis situation. This change allowed us to replace our obsolete system, it provided us with the opportunity to designate multiple channels in a crisis situation, and allowed us to communicate more smoothly and eliminate that congestive flow of traffic that we were having on an analog system. Analog system only allow us to have two channels and we have 25 K-12 buildings and trying to communicate on two channels during a crisis situation, which was almost impossible.

Now moving from analog to digital allows our schools to move off of being — basically we’re no longer on the island. It allowed us to communicate districtwide and throughout the county. We can talk anywhere, we can communicate anywhere within the district, but one of the most unique things that grant also allowed us to replace some of our old public announcement systems and extend our public address systems throughout all of our K-12 buildings. That allowed us to include flush mount speakers that we didn’t have.

But one of the biggest things the grant allowed us to do was to create a campus-wide paging system. And so when we talk about the campus-wide paging system, prior to having that grant, we didn’t have anything out at our events, at our football fields, baseball field, basketball field, parking lots, our bus loops. Now we’re able to communicate in a crisis situation. If we had to do a lockdown, we are able to move folks in it.

The second grant that we applied through the U.S. Department of Justice, the COPS division, my current two largest high schools did not meet the minimum coverage as it relate to first responders. And so most police agencies across the country operate on a 700-800 megahertz radio system. The way schools are designed with so much glass and brick around it, it was hard for our school resource officers to communicate to local law enforcement. So in order to enhance that coverage, we applied for the grant and I was able to put in some bi-directional amplifiers that boosts the radio frequencies so now our school resource officer and law enforcement who come into the building can communicate safely and effective when needed.

Amy Rock (05:43): That’s great. I feel like grant writing is so tricky. So many districts don’t have their own grant writers, so sometimes the campus safety director or someone in that department is leading it. Do you guys have grant writers or do you do it?

Donald Webster (05:58): Well, we do have grant writers in the district, but when it came down to applying for the safety grants, I wrote the safety grants for the organization. And so some of the challenges that we came across, first thing is to understand what problems you’re trying to solve with technology, and then being able to clearly articulate in the grant what you need. Most safety grants, as we all know, are very competitive. They’re competitive grants. So you really need to be able to explain the problem that you’re trying to solve. And then how are you going to use those funds to solve that problem?

Amy Rock (07:00): Did you find certain things that you were able to do to help overcome those challenges or any tips that you have for writing technology-based solutions for grants?

Donald Webster (07:13): Well, I think the number one thing we need to know when you’re writing a grant is technology is needed in today’s world because it keeps us engaged and all the changes and threats that are going out there. I think again, the first thing when you got to understand what the problems are that you’re trying to address and how are you going to solve that with technology.

So I look at Kalamazoo Public Schools, it is a large school district, and trying to find time to craft a thorough grant is hard to do sometimes in the school district is big. I mean, just finding the time, I got 25 K-12 buildings, and so it is finding that time to actually being able to gather the information from the different buildings, trying to understand what technology they need in those buildings. When you’re writing a grant, you run into problems because trying to figure out is it a technology thing you need or is it staffing that you need? And just always determining what buildings need what. Things that are occurring across the country are driving technology, so finding the right technology that you need for your buildings and finding out what is the best fit technology that you need for your building. Those are kind of the problems that you run into when you’re looking at writing, preparing a grant document.

Amy Rock (09:17): There’s obviously security technology, but technology is also important when tracking threats or tracking students’ progress, if there are any students who have any behavioral issues or there behavioral threat assessment technology as well. Which kind of leads me into my next question, which is technology and physical security is well and good obviously, but you pride yourself on what you call relationship-based security. How do you implement that throughout the district on a daily basis?

Donald Webster (09:46): Well, I talk about Kalamazoo schools having 25 K-12 buildings that sits in three different law enforcement jurisdiction – the city, the township, and the county. Our building sits on over 500 acres of land so we’re pretty spread out, pretty big. And so over the years, I talk about relationship-based training because when we talk about school safety, the number one thing, one of the top two things is you have to have a relationship, not just with your students, your staff, our community partners, but you have to have relationships with your local law enforcement agencies. And so relationship-based training is just another word that we use for as the same thing that we use for as community policing. It is about building relationship with our students and our staff and our community partners and our families because that’s how we get our information from. I have utilized over 30 years of connections to the community and my relationship building to support my long-term and short goals at KPS about building relationships with our students, staff, and our community.

What we do to do that is we try to meet our students in a non-traditional way. We try to meet them where there’s not a crisis situation. We try to build our relationships in before we have a conflict in our building. And it has proven to be very effective at our schools because that helps us keep our schools safe. And one of the things is when we talk about relationship-based training, over the years with that relationships that we have built with our local law enforcement agencies, I mean, it has saved us. It’s a cost saving to the district because of those relationships. The police department is able to provide things that we needed within our district. We have 24 hour, seven days a week access to our local law enforcement agencies, our chiefs, and our sheriff department. And so I think when we talk about relationship-based training, I think that needs to be almost at the top of the line when we talk about school safety. Technology is good, but it’s only as good with the relationship that you have with individuals that are willing to report things to you, feel comfortable talking to you at school. And so that’s what we do. We try to pride ourselves on that relationship-based training.

Amy Rock (13:14): And it’s also good for law enforcement in the area to be aware of what’s going on in the schools because sometimes some issues that are happening in the schools may flow over into the home and into their jurisdictions and out of the school’s hands, so they can kind of be aware of if there’s any issues going on with the families that you might be concerned about. And so it’s just good for everyone to be in the know.

Donald Webster (13:40): Those relationships you have to have it. I mean, like I say, you got 25 K-12 schools that sit in three different law enforcement agencies. And based on that relationship, it helps to get that information that you need in a timely manner. We have access to those local law enforcement agencies 24 hours a day.

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