School Climate & Safety

Web Systems Help Schools Screen Visitors

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 17, 2006 6 min read
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The repairman hired to fix some cabinets arrived at Sunset Hills Elementary School in Florida on a Monday afternoon. Like every other visitor to the Pinellas County school, he was required to hand over his driver’s license to a staff member, who ran it through a scanner.

Within seconds, automated text messages alerted the school’s principal and its resource officer that James George Owens, a 51-year-old convicted sex offender, was in the front office. His name, birth date, and face matched those of a man listed on Florida’s list of sexual offenders and predators.

“We told him immediately that he had to leave our campus, and that he wouldn’t be allowed back on,” said Sterling Ivey, the assistant superintendent for communications with the Pinellas County school district, based in Largo. “The system worked exactly the way it was supposed to, enabling our principal to know who was coming on campus and if he was safe to be around children.”

The 148,000-student district is among a growing number where school leaders rank the threat of sex offenders—some of them parents of enrolled students—as one of their chief student-safety concerns. That threat, they say, is a primary reason for investing thousands of dollars in a Web-based tracking system that tells school officials if a parent, volunteer, vendor, or any other visitor is a registered sex offender.

Since 2003, more than 100 districts in Florida, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and other states have installed, or made plans to install, visitor-tracking systems that link school officials to a database containing the names of hundreds of thousands of sex offenders from 48 states. Some are buying the technology despite tight budgets.

In Anne Arundel County, Md., school officials in February agreed to spend $300,000 to install a tracking system districtwide. If that decision garners final approval from the county government, the system will be placed in all 116 schools by fall, said Bob Yatsuk, a project manager in the office of school security.

The most popular system, made by Houston-based Raptor Technologies, uses names and dates of birth on driver’s licenses and other government- issued identification cards to compare against the registries.

With the swipe of a license through a scanning device, school personnel can find out within 60 seconds if the adult standing before them is a registered sex offender in almost any state, said Alan Bragg, the chief of police for the 32,000-student Spring Independent School District in suburban Houston.

Setting up the system costs roughly $1,200 per school, and then about $400 a year to stay connected to the sex-offender database, Mr. Bragg said.

“When there is a match, the program gives the staff member two pictures: the one from the ID card scanned at the front desk and one from the state that says this guy is an offender,” said Allan Measom, the founder of Raptor Technologies, which developed the tracking program known as V-soft.

Mr. Measom, who said his system is now operating in roughly 1,400 schools, receives a text message every time a school using his software detects a sex offender.

Most days, he averages 10 text messages.

Legislative Action

A wave of sex-offender-related legislation started a decade ago, after a twice-convicted offender raped and murdered Megan Nicole Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl. That case spurred the adoption of federal and state “Megan’s laws,” all of which require some type of public notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a community.

But much of the recent legislation in states—enacted largely in response to other high-profile cases, such as the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida in February 2005—has focused more specifically on sex offenders and schools.

Many states have passed laws dictating where sex offenders can reside. In Ohio, for example, sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school; in Iowa, it’s 2,000 feet.

Many principals keep current lists of the names and photographs of offenders who live within their schools’ attendance boundaries. Some districts, such as Colorado’s 47,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver, post links to state and local sex-offender registries on their Web sites.

A principal’s highest priority is ensuring the safety of students, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. But Mr. Ferrandino said he worries that principals are being asked to do too much.

“In most cases, principals take on these additional things and find a way to do it,” Mr. Ferrandino said. “But in the case of sex offenders, the stakes are so high if something goes wrong. There’s always the possibility that someone can slip through, and then a principal could be brought up on charges for negligence.”

Though there have been no reported incidents in which students in the Spring district have been harmed by sex offenders while on school grounds, Mr. Bragg, the Texas district’s chief of police, didn’t want to take any chances. He said he worried about the more than 100 registered offenders that he knows live near the district’s 31 schools.

“We wanted to be proactive after hearing about things that had happened in other school districts,” Mr. Bragg said. “We saw this technology as a great way to track who is coming in and out of schools on a regular, automated basis, and, more importantly, to know if any of these folks were a threat to our children.”

Officials in the Spring district installed the program, with one dedicated computer in every school’s front office, in the fall of 2003.

Once or twice a week, Mr. Bragg said, he and other administrators receive an e-mail on their cellphones, alerting them that a registered sex offender has just signed in at one of the district’s schools. Usually, he said, the offender is a parent of a child at the school—a surprising revelation to school officials when the system was first installed.

“In those cases, we don’t restrict parents from the privilege of coming to campus to have lunch with their child or to meet with a teacher,” Mr. Bragg said. “But before they can do that, the principal has talked with them and told them that they will be carefully watched during their time at school.”

‘An Obligation’

One education lawyer said the growing popularity of such technology is a sign that schools are taking on a law-enforcement responsibility, or must do so.

“Between the law and the technology, the fact that someone is a registered sex offender is now very public information, and schools, more and more, are expected to be not only a recipient of that information, but a conduit as well,” said Drew Bracken, a lawyer with Ahlers & Cooney in Des Moines, a firm that represents many of Iowa’s school districts.

Even in states where schools aren’t required to disseminate sex-offender information to parents, Mr. Bracken said, they ought to.

“I think it’s a public relations obligation, even if it’s not a legal one,” he said. “If the school knows that a sex offender is living across the street, they should notify parents. If something were to happen, and the school hadn’t told parents what it knew, it could present a problem.”

Mr. Yatsuk, the school security official in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County district, based in Annapolis, agrees that schools should do everything in their power to protect students.

That became clear last fall, he said, when a school secretary at Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Md., recognized a convicted sex offender lingering on campus.

“That was a great catch by a staff member, but what about offenders that people have not seen before?” he said. “It’s a priority for our administrators, our board members, and our parents to be sure our students are protected from these people.”

Lisa Soronen, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., had not heard of the visitor-tracking systems, although she said that talk about sex offenders and schools is common among district lawyers.

Such tracking systems, she said, are likely to catch on with more districts as word spreads.

“I think districts want to treat this as a pre-emptive matter, and anything that helps them do that will be of great interest,” Ms. Soronen said. “The last thing they want or need is for something to happen and be surprised.”

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