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Take Note: Detection or deception?

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The name sounds like something out of "Star Trek,'' and the device appeared to be a blessing to educators seeking safer schools.

The Quadro Tracker has been marketed as a "positive molecular locater," a hand-held device that can detect weapons, explosives, or drugs.

The Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, S.C., has marketed the gizmo to law-enforcement agencies, correctional institutions, and schools. More than a few school districts, eager to do something to make their campuses free of weapons and illegal drugs, apparently have forked over $995 for what its manufacturer calls the "school version" of the Quadro Tracker.

But the federal government has been checking into the tracker since last August and now alleges that the device is a fraud. Federal prosecutors in Beaumont, Texas, won a temporary restraining order last month that bars Quadro from making, selling, or distributing the device.

Although Quadro says its product is a sophisticated electronic instrument with a "chip" programmed to detect different types of contraband, it is really "simply a hollow plastic device with a retractable transistor radio antenna," according to court papers filed by the government. "The chip is nothing more than a small piece of polymer-coated white paper ... sealed between two pieces of plastic," the papers say.

A court hearing was scheduled for late last week on the government's request to make the order permanent.

Robert T. Lyles Jr., one of Quadro Corp.'s lawyers, said the company was eager to defend the product in court.

"I know there are satisfied law-enforcement, corrections, and school officials all over the country," he said last week.

Federal officials say they believe that Quadro has sold about 1,000 of the devices nationwide, although they aren't sure how many have been sold to schools. News reports say districts in Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas have purchased or tested the device.

Ronald D. Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. said he had received several inquiries from school districts about the device.

"We were intrigued by it, and we were impressed that such a high-tech device was being made available to schools," he said. But, he said last week, "we were glad we had not given it any endorsement."

--Mark Walsh

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