The latest move by state lawmakers to improve school security is drawing claims that it’s designed to steer an $8 million contract to a well-connected vendor.
TALLAHASSEE — A school security measure emerging from the 2018 slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has turned into a tug-of-war between technology vendors, with some saying a panic button proposal is drawn to steer an $8 million state contract to a well-connected company.
Legislation aimed at making panic alarms available at all Florida schools is poised to win final approval from the House and Senate in coming days.
But the measures (HB23, SB70) have been crafted to require that the alarms be on a mobile phone application that connects with law enforcement.
The state’s Department of Education also would be forced to award a single contract for all 67 school districts — positioning Connecticut-based Mutualink and partner Rave Mobile Safety for a potential $8 million payday, the amount of state dollars provided by the legislation.
Mutualink’s lobbyist is former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican; Rave is represented by Kim McDougal, a former chief-of-staff for former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
“This is proven technology,” Haridopolos said. “DOE is going to talk to all these different companies — we’re not the only one with mobile technology — and the state has to pick the one that’s best.”
While there may be other companies developing a panic button phone app, Mutualink/Rave’s is well-established.
The partnership already is being used by a dozen Florida school districts, allowing teachers and school staff — although not students — to connect with first responders for everything from a school safety threat to medical emergencies.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Education Department also wants to enact some kind of panic button system, companies with other techniques say they are being shut out in the legislation.
“Every district’s needs are not the same,” said Tony Hunter with Alertpoint Security, which has a rival alarm service.
He said lawmakers should “allow districts to choose the system that works best for them.”
The legislation is named Alyssa’s Law, for Alyssa Alhadeff, one of the 17 students and staff killed in the Valentine’s Day 2018 shootings at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Alyssa’s mother, Lori, has spoken at House and Senate committees in support of the panic button measure, which the family’s home state of New Jersey adopted last year.
Unlike the approach emerging in Florida, New Jersey allows school districts to choose the “most responsive” technology, based on a list of approved companies.
Florida supporters of the mobile phone app warn that other alarm models would cost millions more to install and take years to get up and running.
A Mutualink director of business development, Jeffrey Kelly, has assured lawmakers his company could have the app in use statewide within a year.
Looking to quell the controversy, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, is now proposing an amendment — which could be taken up Thursday by the House — that would drop the mobile app requirement from the statewide panic alarm measure.
But the amendment instead includes a requirement that the technology be certified by the Department of Homeland Security, a provision Mutualink/Rave has secured, but which many rival companies lack.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he was unhappy that lawmakers were being dragged into a “vendor-driven food fight.”
But he also raised doubts about the panic button app, saying he thought most people — with phone access — would still call 911 in an emergency.
“In three buttons, you can talk to a live operator for free — it costs not $8 million — and you can have a live operator talking to law enforcement ... about any type of situation,” Brandes told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
But the mobile phone app has its supporters.
“I wanted a panic alarm on a phone; everybody’s got a phone on them,” said Seminole County Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Francis, who serves as the county’s school safety director. “We’ve had a great relationship with Mutualink. It works. And it better work when you’re in these emergency situations.”
Still, relying on mobile phone technology has drawn concerns, especially in rural Florida districts where cellular or WiFi access can be spotty. Concrete block school buildings and wide-ranging campuses can present their own phone access problems, critics say.
“I represent a district where there are plenty of spots with no cellphone connections,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. “We don’t just have dead zones; there are some places where you better have plenty of gas in your car when you’re driving through.”