Schools Now Prime Target for Thieves Facing the Computer- Security Threat
For a while last July, it looked as though Palm Bay High School would have to delay the expansion of its computer program. In two thefts about three weeks apart, approximately $19,000 worth of computer hardware was stolen, according to James R. Parker, who was then the school's assistant principal.
The day after the second theft, in which 13 new computer systems--including disk drives, monitors, and keyboards--were stolen, Mr. Parker had a talk with several classes and many of the 600 summer-school students.
"I told them it was not Palm Bay High School that was hurt, it was the student body," Mr. Parker said. "I told them we were going to have a large number of students who were going to have to learn about computers from textbooks, without having hands-on experience."
Within two days, the equipment was recovered: The keyboards and disk drives were found in a series of hall lockers; the computers were found in boxes on school property and in the woods across the street; and the monitors were found on the school's roof. There was even a note of apology in which the thieves said they were sorry for the inconvenience.
Palm Bay High School was lucky. But luck might be running out for school officials across the country who invest in Continued on Page 11
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computer equipment without investing in security measures, computer consultants warn.
Schools a Likely Target
"It seems to be getting widely known that every school has a lab of computers. If you want to rip off a lot of computers, one place to go is a computer store--or a school," said Glenn A. Fisher, a computer consultant for the Alameda County (Calif.) Office of Education, who lectures frequently on the subject of computer security.
"Many schools are not taking any security measures," he added, "which is why I'm going around being the doomsayer, not because the problem is great, but because if they don't do anything, the problem will be great."
According to Mr. Fisher, who is also president of Computer Using Educators, a national nonprofit organization, many school officials shy away from security measures because of the cost.
"Most security devices would cost $100 to $300 per computer and alarming a building is outrageously expensive," he said. "Moreover," he added, "school officials are often guilty "of not looking carefully at the situation and of thinking they've probably done enough already."
That was the case at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., according to Robert A. Banos, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley who helped the high school set up its mathematics-and-computer program.
"Since the lab was set up with 22 Commodore 64 computers and an advanced state-of-the-art network system, there have been 11 break-ins, roughly one every month," he said.
School officials, he added, "didn't appreciate the scope or gravity of the problem. They preferred to think it happened once, it won't happen again."
Security a 'Major Concern'
As the number of computers in schools continues to escalate, however, many school officials are seriously considering what security measures need to be taken.
In New York City, where the number of computers in public schools is expected to double to around 18,000 in the next two years, officials have spent the past several months "wrestling" with the issue, according to Irwin Kaufman, director of technology for city schools.
"Security is a very major concern," he said. "It's very important to have that equipment secured, and in that school, because there's no guarantee that if a computer walks it's going to be replaced. In order to get some equality in this information age we're living in, students have to have access, and the only way they'll have access is if the computers are in the schools."
Nevertheless, he added, "how to secure them is a major problem--there's nothing that's foolproof."
Measures Not Always Enough
Measures that are being taken include selecting rooms for computer labs that have limited access and installing burglar alarms, deadbolt locks, and metal bars across windows, according to several school officials interviewed last week. (See accompanying story on this page.) Some schools go a step further and cable their computer systems together or bolt their equipment to desktops.
Sometimes the security measures are not enough, as in the case of one Philadelphia high school in which thieves entered a room adjacent to the computer lab and, using what officials believe was a sledgehammer, broke through the room's cement wall.
"We feel the security in the room was good," said Arlene Kramer, director of computer, science, and technology for the Philadelphiael5lschool system. "If somebody wants to rob your house by driving a truck through your walls, what can you do?"
In Alameda, a county of 500 schools, about $60,000 worth of equipment has been stolen in 10 thefts over the past two years, Mr. Fisher said. In one case, he said, "the school building was alarmed, the computers were bolted onto the tables, and the tables were too large to go through the door. Somebody came in over the weekend, apparently with a moving van. The teacher found her desk, all the chairs, all the tables, and all the computers were gone. I think they either knocked the legs off or turned the desks sideways."
But in another incident, he added, thieves were stymied by the extra security measures taken. "They broke into a school where the windows were barred, where there was a second lock, and where there was a silent security alarm with a buzzer at police headquarters.
"Police arrived 45 minutes later," he continued. "Because it was so difficult to break into the room, the thieves had 16 computers stacked outside the school and were loading them into a pickup truck when they were caught redhanded. If the alarm system alone had been in there, they would have been gone."
Inside Jobs Suspected
Some school officials suspect that while some thefts are perpetrated by professional criminals, many are "inside jobs" by people familiar with school facilities.
About 10 computers--two early this month--have been stolen this year from the Albuquerque Public Schools, according to Paul E. Testa, educational computing consultant for the school system. One incident, he added, was a forceable break-in. The rest, he said, "were just stolen by someone who had access to the computer room."
"I think the key to security goes beyond [alarms, locks, and other theft-prevention methods]," Mr. Testa said. "Security needs to be made a priority of the principals. You can have a great alarm system and a great facility, but if someone leaves the door open or doesn't turn on the alarm, the system is worthless."