NORMAL - A new system designed to contact Unit 5 parents and guardians in an emergency worked fairly well in its first real use Tuesday, even if there were a few glitches involving who was called and how many times they were called, school officials said Wednesday.
Parents generally said they were pleased about being notified about an incident involving what could have been a weapon, but some thought the message directing people to a Web site for details was unfair to parents without online access.
District employees were trained Monday to use the SchoolReach system. Less than 24 hours later, district leaders found themselves faced with a reason to use it for the first time.
On Tuesday morning at Normal Community West High School, police arrested a student accused of attending school Monday with something that looked like a gun. Authorities say it proved to be a starter pistol used at sporting events, but the student's case is being handled in juvenile court.
Administrators said they wanted to avoid a rumor mill Tuesday, so they decided to try out the new system, even though the call lists for the system hadn't been finalized yet
Superintendent Gary Niehaus thinks SchoolReach calls helped cut down on rumors and nervousness that might have showed up Wednesday morning at the northwest Normal campus.
"I think having that in place, having those calls out, calmed some of what could have happened the next day," said Niehaus.
The Unit 5 school board voted in November to buy the SchoolReach notification system at a cost of about $3.50 per student. The system can send messages to up to 6,000 recipients per minute, either by telephone or e-mail.
The system will be used in emergencies, such as weather-related closings, and notifying parents of students' lunchroom account balances.
The system allows Unit 5 to send automated messages to up to six phone numbers per student.
On Tuesday evening, all numbers were called, including families' backup emergency contacts. That means some people received the call several times.
In addition, some people who no longer lived in the district reported getting calls, and even a few people who had no affiliation with the district, either as a parent or emergency contact, got calls.
Priority notification list
"Eventually we'll have a priority list," so only a few contact numbers will be used for each student, said Niehaus. What time of day the message is sent also will determine whether daytime or evening numbers are dialed, he said.
Tuesday's first effort brought mixed reactions from parents.
Michelle Freimann, a Normal resident who is mother to a junior and a senior at Normal West, arrived home from work Tuesday and got a telephone call from her brother advising her to check the school's Web site. Apparently, her mother, her father, her brother, and the teen's father in Colorado received the automated message.
"My kids were home, so I knew they were safe. But I didn't know what was going on," Freimann said.
The automated message, a recording from Eder, simply directed message recipients to visit the district's Web site. It gave no indication what had occurred.
That vagueness concerns her.
"What about the families that don't have Internet access?" asked Freimann.
Niehaus said most families now have phones and Internet access, but for those that lack those services, he hopes word of mouth would spread the message further.