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Published in Print: October 26, 2005, as Justice Grant Aids Advanced School Communications

Justice Grant Aids Advanced School Communications

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The proliferation of cellphones, laptops, and other wireless gadgets gives school districts more ways of communicating than ever. Unfortunately, incompatibility among many different devices results in an “electronic Tower of Babel,” as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., put it last week.

Rep. Davis was on hand at Freedom High School, in Woodbridge, Va., for the ceremonial presentation of a $246,000 grant from the Department of Justice to the Prince William County school district.

The grant will be used to pilot-test a new type of software that allows communication among a wide range of devices that school districts already have—including cellphones, walkie-talkies, personal digital assistants, and even video cameras.

Rep. Davis, whose district includes the school, said the technology potentially could be used, among other things, to track the location of school buses.

The 66,000-student Prince William County district in suburban Washington obtained the grant as an earmark in the fiscal 2005 federal appropriations bill that covers the Justice Department, thanks to Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Though such earmarks are often disparaged as “pork,” this project has gained an aura of necessity from recent security crises and natural disasters, which have convinced many government officials of a need for better communications in school districts and between them and “first responders” in police, fire, and emergency services.

Four Schools in Pilot Test

The district’s partner in the grant is CoCo Communications Corp., a Seattle-based company that developed the software, and which hopes to build a nationwide market for it. Mark Tucker, the company’s president, said the software serves as an “electronic fabric” that translates signals from all the devices and makes them “interoperable.” The software encrypts the signals and protects the communications though passwords so that they are not easily intercepted by computer hackers and to ensure the devices cannot be used without authorization.

The company, which was formed in 2002 and has fewer than 70 employees, is also touting versions of its software to law enforcement, the airline industry, and other fields, Mr. Tucker said.

So far, the software has only been tested in individual schools, as opposed to among several schools. The Prince William district’s pilot test will be conducted at four schools: Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va., and three of its feeder schools. The software must be installed on a computer server at each school.

The nine-month pilot test will help CoCo Communications develop procedures that fit the way districts operate, officials said.

Communications between schools and emergency services are not covered by the project. To work with local emergency services, a school district would have to enter into agreements with those agencies, which would also have to install the software, said Peter Erickson, a CoCo vice president.

The software can also assist in routine communications, such as meetings among staff members and interactions between educators and parents, company officials said.

A National Network?

But with crisis preparedness the watchword of the day, routine uses were not emphasized at the Oct. 17 demonstration here.

Instead, Mr. Erickson demonstrated how school officials would be able to view icons on their hand-held computers that represent video cameras installed at schools around the district. Once an icon is selected, the screen then displays a jerky stream of video from that camera. Prince William County school officials said they are installing video cameras throughout the district’s 82 schools.

CoCo Communications envisions a future in which school districts and other government agencies will combine their communications system into a vast, interlocking “national education protection network.”

That proposed network is not recognized by the Department of Education, although federal officials are urging school districts to have crisis plans that address multiple hazards, Jo Ann Webb, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

She referred instead to the Department of Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System, which unifies federal, state, and local lines of government for incident response.

Ms. Webb said that “while consistent communication across all sectors (emergency responders, police, schools, etc.) is a key component of the National Incident Management System, it is only one part of a comprehensive emergency-response plan.”

—Peter Erickson, a vice president of CoCo Communications Corp., shows off equipment the Prince William County, Va., schools will use under a Department of Justice grant. —Joe Brier/Potomac News

Vol. 25, Issue 09, Pages 36,39

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