Metro Detroit Teachers Create App to Help Automate School Lockdowns

It seems that hardly a week goes by without news of yet another mass shooting in the United States.

Since the threat of spontaneous gun violence doesn’t seem to be going away, innovators are looking for ways to protect themselves and loved ones from these shooters. That includes two Detroit-area teachers, Matt Ridenour and Josette Rechul, who have created an app originally meant to assess band students into a system that helps automate school lockdown procedures in an emergency.

Called TABS (Tracking Appropriate Behaviors System), the mobile and desktop software facilitates secure communication during a lockdown, paperless hall passes, and in-app attendance taking. It also tracks positive and negative student behaviors that can be customized by school.

“Josette and I are band directors, so we had the idea a long time ago to build an assessment tool for band, and we created software to go with it,” Ridenour explains. “We were trying to help teachers take attendance and perform other minutia. We started brainstorming all we could do to make life easier for teachers, and we realized [the app] would be perfect to use in a crisis situation.”

Ridenour has been teaching for 24 years, but says over the past five or so years, he’s felt “less and less secure at school.” Whenever he’d read news coverage after a school shooting, a teacher or administrator was almost always quoted as saying something like, “We never expected it to happen here.”

“You try and prepare and like to think you’re prepared, but when that chaos starts, nobody can predict what will happen,” he says. “You don’t go to school with fear, but you’re definitely aware you’re in a profession where things can happen.”

Ridenour says the TABS app is designed to give a school in-depth information about its students. School administrators can access a dashboard and designate the behaviors they want to track. In an emergency, the principal, for example, could use the app to send an alert to teachers, security personnel, and school counselors, who would then either hit a “safe” or “need help” button depending on the circumstances. Meanwhile, school administrators would see a list of teachers and classrooms with real-time security status updates that automatically greys out and moves the safe classrooms to the bottom of the list.

“You can quickly see where the problem is,” Ridenour adds. He and Rechul would like to add a future feature in which “help” pings show up on a digital school map, which could then be pushed to first responders. “There’s a lot of legality to explore before we can add that,” he says.

Schools today operate much differently than they did a generation ago, Ridenour says. Students don’t have a new class every hour, he says, and there is “constant, fluid motion” in the hallways. He says keeping track of where students are at any given time is one of teachers’ biggest challenges. With TABS, teachers can assign students a digital hall pass that is set to expire after a certain amount of time. If the student is not marked as being back in class by then, the school’s security team gets an automatic notification.

Ridenour feels most schools are trying to get in front of student behavior issues. “We all feel kids are changing,” he says. With TABS, teachers not only note bad behavior, they also reward students for good behavior. Kids can earn positive behavior points, which can then be redeemed for gift cards and other small rewards. Conversely, when a student earns negative behavior points, it triggers a series of interventions, including automated e-mails to parents.

“It creates an automatic communication loop,” he says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Is there something we need to look at here?’ The next stage involves a school counselor getting an e-mail with parents so they can schedule a meeting and step in a little more heavily. We’re trying to find fresh ways to keep pushing kids forward when they’re always stuck on their phones. It’s a constant battle.”

Ridenour and Rechul are the sole employees of their privately funded company, which just launched in June. They hope to get 100 schools signed up for the app by the end of summer and will grow “as much as needed,” Ridenour says. (The school they teach at, Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, MI, will begin using the app when school starts up again in September.)

“A lot of people are creating educational apps in the boardroom instead of the classroom,” Ridenour says. “I don’t think anyone has brought forward this suite of tools yet. We don’t have all the answers for how to stop school shooters, but if we can provide information in a split second, it would really help minimize the damage.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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