On a day when police said a teenager went on a stabbing spree at a Pennsylvania high school, the Miami-Dade School Board approved a potentially $2 million messaging deal the district hopes will improve communications with students and parents during times of crisis.
The possible five-year contract with Blackboard Connect will allow the school district to blast hundreds of thousands of text messages within hours, improving a system that until now has relied mostly on robotic phone calls placed mostly to land lines.
The timing of the board’s vote and the mass stabbing, during which as many as 20 people were wounded, was coincidental. And the texting system would be used to distribute positive news as well as information about emergency situations.
But Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the new messaging system should help keep parents and students informed, especially during tragic and startling incidents. He recalled that years ago, after a student was fatally stabbed at Coral Gables Senior High School, parents felt left out of the loop despite the district’s efforts and minute-by-minute news media coverage.
“What parents have told us,” Carvalho said, “is they want to learn about it via text message and hear about it very quickly.”
According to documents provided to board members, Blackboard Connect’s Web-based Connect-ED service will allow district employees to blast texts, instant messages, emails and voice messages in multiple languages about emergencies and other school-related issues to students, parents and employees.
The contract, which was competitively bid, also includes use of a text tip line for issues like bullying and crime. The value of the deal is based on an estimated cost of $1.42 per student.
Other school systems, like the Austin Independent School District, already send out information via text.
Carvalho said the district is beefing up an existing database of numbers with student and parent cellphone contacts. He said numbers in the database can be sorted as broadly as districtwide down to feeder patterns, schools and even classrooms to contact specific employees, parents and students. He said the system has already been tested with some employees.
Students wanted the service as well, said School Board member Lawrence Feldman, who back in December asked the district to review its communications systems. He said he requested the review after a rumor-inducing incident in November at Miami Palmetto Senior High School in which a female student slashed a male student and a teacher with a pair of scissors.
Feldman said students from his Student Leadership Advisory Council — specifically some from Palmetto — said afterward that text messages would be a better way for the district to disseminate information. Students said that on the day of the scissor attack, which police said resulted in minor injuries, they were getting bad information from people outside the school.
“The Palmetto kids told us what the problem was and how they sat there and messages were coming in. They said they were getting all the wrong information,” said Feldman. “If there's an incident going down, [students] need to be aware so they don’t have emotional issues that come from apprehension or misinformation from rumors.”
Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.