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Burglar Alarm

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Social studies teacher Guadalupe De La Torre was making copies in his high school's faculty lounge about 6 a.m. one day last March, and he didn't give a second thought to whether the nearby laptop computer he had been using was safe. He should have.

While De La Torre was busy photocopying, someone slipped in and stole the $2,500 computer, which the student government at Del Campo High School in Sacramento, California, had recently purchased. With the computer, the thieves took the teacher's notes for his master's thesis, a database of student-government information, and outlines for a proposed electronic bulletin board.

Someone later tried to sell the machine--minus its serial number--at the local Byte Brokers, a used-computer chain. But store employees read 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 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 last 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," MacDonald says. One local high school has been broken into nine times over the past year, and Del Campo High School has been the scene of several other computer thefts.

Nationwide, theft of high-tech equipment from schools is growing. No one tracks such crime nationally, but law-enforcement officials say schools are becoming more frequent targets because they are rapidly acquiring new technological tools that are easily sold secondhand. "Theft of school property is nothing new," says Peter Blauvelt, who heads the National Alliance of Safe Schools in Lanham, Maryland. "It's just that we've increased the spoils of stealing."

Many of the machines stolen from schools have CD-ROM drives, high-speed modems, and other features that are popular items in the growing "gray market"--the second-hand stores and flea markets that savvy buyers scour for bargains.

As states and districts nationwide spend billions of dollars to update the aging stock of classroom computers, police and school-security experts worry that gray-market thieves have come to see schools--which for the most part are poorly guarded--as easy pickings. Computer security, they say, needs to be figured in as a "hidden cost" of any school technology program.

School officials in Dade County, Florida, have heeded this advice. Most of the district's computers are locked in place, at a cost of $100 per machine, says Chris Master, who heads the instructional-technology office for the 300,000-student school system. Also, security devices represent a chunk of the district's $30 million plan to add as many as 6,000 computers to 41 schools.

While Dade officials mark computers as district property, Master says that does little to deter technologically sophisticated students who pilfer valuable chips from the machines.

Indeed, Blauvelt believes that most school theft is pulled off by school employees and students. Those on the inside may have help from pros, he concedes, but sophisticated crime rings usually aren't involved.

Blauvelt points to a recent case at the Landon School, an exclusive private school in Bethesda, Maryland, where six middle school students were expelled and four others suspended after it was discovered that they had stolen portable computers and resold them to other students. This sort of scenario, he believes, is more typical of the crime plaguing schools.

Landon headmaster Damon Bradley says the students lifted the machines from an unlocked room. The school is reviewing its security procedures. But Bradley notes students' access to the laptops is a big part of the 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," Bradley says. "We knew that when we opted for portability that we would face risk."

In a computer heist, far more than hardware can be lost, as Sacramento teacher De La Torre well knows. He almost lost the notes for his master's thesis.

In LaFourche Parish in southern Louisiana, thieves struck the same building twice in less than three months. The equipment stolen was valued at $10,000, but with the hardware, the district lost vital administrative data. "That was the hardest thing for the principals and the secretaries to deal with," says district spokesman Floyd Benoit. "They had backup disks, but [the thieves] took those, too."

According to Blauvelt, new alarm technologies such as motion detectors could help schools deter theft. "If the average classroom computer costs $2,000," he says, "and if I can protect 10 of those in a classroom for under $200, that's pretty good economy."

Over the next few years, the 16,000-student LaFourche district will install sophisticated alarm systems in each of the district's 30 schools. A recently passed 1 cent sales-tax increase will help pay for a technology upgrade in the schools, and officials realize that their new purchases could make them an easy mark for thieves.

"We haven't had much to steal," Benoit says. "But we're going to be having tons of equipment coming into the schools. We're talking about $600,000 in this parish alone."

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