Computer Theft Is 'Hidden Cost' Of Boom in School Technology
Social studies teacher Guadalupe De La Torre was making copies in his high school's faculty lounge about 6 a.m. one day this March, and he didn't give a second thought to whether the laptop computer he had been using was safe in a nearby bag.
He should have.
While Mr. De La Torre was busy with the photocopy machine, someone entered the room and stole the $2,500 computer, which the student government group at Del Campo High School in Sacramento, Calif., had recently purchased. With the computer, the thieves took Mr. De La Torre's notes for his master's thesis, a database of the school's student-government information, and outlines for a proposed electronic bulletin board that would link student governments nationwide.
Someone later tried to sell the machine, minus its serial number, at the local branch of Byte Brokers, a used-computer chain. Tapping into the hard drive, store employees read Mr. De La Torre's notes and alerted a high-tech task force based at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office. The unusual, multijurisdictional unit of state and local law-enforcement officers deals specifically with computer crime.
Had it not been recovered, the student group's laptop would have been just another of the more than $150,000 worth of computers stolen from Sacramento County's 48,000-student San Juan school district this school year, according to Detective William MacDonald, a California Highway Patrol officer assigned to the task force.
"Thieves have just started targeting the schools because they're so easy to burglarize," he said. One local high school has been broken into nine times over the past year, he said, and Del Campo High School has been the scene of several other computer thefts.
California's schools are not alone as victims of such crimes.
Nationwide, law-enforcement officials say, thefts of schools' technological equipment, from computers to videocassette recorders, is growing. And though no one, including the FBI, tracks such statistics nationally, law-enforcement officials say schools are becoming more frequent targets as they add new technologies, which can easily be sold on the so-called gray market.
"Theft of school property is nothing new," said Peter Blauvelt, the head of the nonprofit National Alliance of Safe Schools in Lanham, Md., which provides research and training in school security. "It's just that we've increased the spoils of stealing."
Mr. Blauvelt is the former head of security for the Prince George's County, Md., schools.
Detective MacDonald said many of the machines with such attractive features as CD-ROM drives and high-speed modems that are stolen from schools end up in the growing gray market--second-hand stores and flea markets where people shop for bargains. And some machines are merely stripped of hard-to-trace chips and other internal parts.
Increasing the Spoils
State legislatures and local districts nationwide, meanwhile, are spending billions of dollars to update the aging stock of classroom computers. That has police and school-security experts worried that thieves have come to view schools--which for the most part are poorly equipped to prevent theft--as a ready source of supply for the gray market.
Computer security, they say, ought to be considered a "hidden cost" of implementing a technology program.
In the Dade County, Fla., schools, locking mechanisms are required only on computers in schools in high-crime areas. But most of the district's computers are locked in place, at a cost of $100 per machine, according to Chris Master, who heads the instructional-technology office for the more than 300,000-student school system.
Ms. Master said the district is soliciting bids on a $30 million project to add as many as 6,000 computers to 41 schools. Security devices, she said, represent a significant portion of that contract.
In addition, the district marks its computers in several conspicuous places as district property. But such marking, Ms. Master acknowledged, does little to deter technologically savvy students who are able to steal valuable chips out of the machines.
Preventative measures discourage thieves, but too few school officials realize that a new computer lab represents not only an educational asset and public-relations opportunity, but also a tempting target for thieves, Mr. MacDonald said.
He added that police agencies also need to look differently at school crime.
Under traditional law-enforcement procedures in which investigations generally are limited by local political boundaries, the wave of school burglaries in Sacramento and neighboring Placer County may not have attracted the same kind of attention, Detective MacDonald said.
"No one has paid much attention to schools," he said. "Because we don't care about the district boundaries, because we just deal with the overall picture, it became clear that the schools are being hit."
But while Mr. Blauvelt shares Mr. MacDonald's belief that thefts to feed the gray market are growing, he also noted that all losses cannot be blamed on sophisticated crime rings. Most school theft, Mr. Blauvelt said, can be traced to employees or students.
But it also is possible that sometimes those inside the school work with those outside. In the Sacramento case, Mr. De La Torre said that investigators were looking into the possibility that professional thieves were using students to scout out Del Campo High for possible burglaries.
Mr. Blauvelt pointed to a recent case at the Landon School, an exclusive private school in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington, where six middle school students were expelled and four suspended after it was discovered that they had taken part in a group that stole portable computers and resold them to other students, as more typical.
Damon Bradley, the school's headmaster, said the machines were taken from an unlocked room. The school is reviewing its security procedures for a program that allows students and teachers to borrow laptop computers for home use, he said.
But Mr. Bradley said making laptop computers available to all students, regardless of income, is a big part of the 620-student Landon School's plan to make technology an integral part of classroom life.
"What we wanted when we went into this project was a certain amount of portability--to move computers from labs and into the classrooms and to make sure that computers were viewed as tools," he said.
School officials, he said, believe the thefts were an anomaly in a school that prides itself on adherence to its stringent honor code. "We knew that when we opted for portability that we would face that risk," he added.
Security Weapons of Choice
Some large urban districts, meanwhile, have aggressively used school security officers to deter internal theft.
In 1994, for example, a statistician for the Chicago public schools was videotaped by a school security team as he loaded $50,000 worth of modems, mouses, and keyboards into his car from a district warehouse. The employee was later convicted of theft.
"It was an individual that did that, and we haven't been able to establish a pattern of continuing thefts," said George Ruckrich, the district's director of safety and security.
Mr. Ruckrich said thefts can be minimized by maintaining an inventory of equipment and marking it with identification numbers, as well as by keeping computers in locked rooms--a recommendation that is at odds with such instructional philosophies as the one espoused at the Landon School.
In the roughly 412,000-student Chicago district, Mr. Ruckrich said, such items as videocassette recorders and televisions are often more likely than computers to be stolen.
Sometimes, however, thefts are secondary to simple acts of vandalism.
Santa Calderon, the principal of Canterbury Magnet and Elementary School in Arleta, Calif., said that intruders who broke into the school over the Christmas holiday to spray graffiti on the walls also stole four old computers. It was the 10th such incident of vandalism in a few months at the school.
Ms. Calderon said that after the most recent break-in, parents, teachers, and students mounted a letter-writing campaign to local school officials to express their outrage. The community has become much more vigilant about intruders on school property as a result, she said.
Ms. Calderon also noted that the 1,046-student school has taken precautions to protect a new shipment of computers. Officials spent more than $15,000 in state discretionary funds, money that otherwise would have been spent on instruction, to install security grilles on the school's windows.
Loss of Data
Often when computers are stolen, far more than hardware is lost, adding to the impact of the thefts.
In LaFourche Parish in southern Louisiana, thieves struck at the same building twice in less than three months, both times stealing roughly the same type of equipment, valued at $10,000, and with it some vital administrative data.
"That was the hardest thing for the principals and the secretaries to deal with," said Floyd Benoit, a district spokesman. "They had backup disks, but [the thieves] took those, too."
Mr. Blauvelt said that improvements in alarm technology, such as motion detectors for individual classrooms, can help some schools deter theft.
"If the average classroom computer costs $2,000, and if I can protect 10 of those in a classroom for under $200, that's pretty good economy," he said. "But that's assuming you already have an alarm system in the school."
Mr. Benoit said the 16,000-student LaFourche district has decided to install alarm systems over the next few years in each of the district's 30 schools, at a cost of $2,000 each, in anticipation of a bonanza of new equipment.
After a boom in the 1980s fueled by oil revenues, the area's economy has struggled. But a recently passed 1-cent sales tax increase designed to help schools upgrade technology means the district will soon be buying more computers and must protect its investment.
"We haven't had much to steal," Mr. Benoit said. "But we're going to be having tons equipment coming into the schools. We're talking about $600,000 in this parish alone."