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High-tech school security is on the rise

USA TODAY | October 9, 2006
By Greg Toppo

Each morning, the 16,000 students in the Spring Independent School District in suburban Houston swipe their ID tags as they climb onto the school bus. A radio frequency tag tracks them, as it does when they arrive at school and as they leave the building.

Nearly 1,000 cameras watch them all day. Every visitor — parents, volunteers, the guy who fills the Coke machine — must surrender his or her driver's license to a secretary who checks it against a national database of sex offenders. This fall, nearly one in three schools literally trap visitors inside a "secure vestibule," a bulletproof glass room, until they're checked out.

Welcome to the brave new world of school security. In an era when deadly school shootings seem to happen like clockwork, schools are hardening up, trying unconventional means to deter violence and keep track of students and adults.

President Bush convenes a school safety summit today in response to a spate of shootings. But schools have long been beefing up security — often in the face of diminishing funding — creating "crisis plans" and investing millions in systems they hope will deter the next deadly incident.

"If somebody's really determined to get into a school and they have a high enough caliber weapon, they're going to get in," says Alan Bragg, chief of Spring's school police. But ID checks and the like are "a huge deterrent" to most would-be criminals.

And though shootings like those at Columbine High School in 1999 prompted schools to be on the lookout for violent students, safety experts say kidnapping and molestation cases also have forced them to pay attention to adults on campus.

Florida and California now require criminal background checks for anyone working or regularly visiting a school.

"People need to realize that the day of the open campus is changing," says Allan Measom, CEO of Raptor Technologies, a Houston firm that sells the visitor tracking system that Spring uses.

Schools in 19 states use it to stop registered sex offenders at the front desk. Since the school year began, Measom says, it has ID'd more than 100 offenders, about seven a day. States lost track of about 20 who fled without telling police.

Raptor actually was born from the collapse of Enron. Measom's firm had built a Web-based system to track visitors at the Houston energy company, but when Enron, amid financial scandal, went belly-up in 2002, Measom and a partner adapted the technology.

They're now in 2,020 schools in 212 districts. After an initial investment of $1,500, schools pay $432 a year to access the system.

Schools — most often it's the secretaries at the front desk — scan a visitor's driver's license. The system transmits the visitor's name, date of birth and photo to Raptor. If the data match those of someone in the sex offender registry, Raptor e-mails the arrest photo to the school, lining it up next to the driver's license photo. An onscreen prompt asks: "Is this the person registering?"

If the photos match and the secretary clicks "Yes," police get an e-mail or text message. In most cases, the visitor — often a parent — may simply get restricted access. Many offenders have been stopped from working or volunteering at schools, and in a few cases, police have tracked down offenders and arrested them.

More schools may get the technology soon; the U.S. Justice Department recently chose Raptor as a pilot program for schools nationwide.

 

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