Can I Come In?

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New access-control devices are an important addition to the sophisticated work that one Texas school district is doing to protect its students.

Can I Come In?TWENTY MILES NORTH of Houston, Alan Bragg keeps watch over the Spring Independent School District.

"Spring ISD began its own police force 18 years ago," says Bragg, who has served as the district's chief of police since the force's inception. "We are sworn law officers who work for the school district doing full-time policing. We're a 24/7/365 department that constantly studies ways to improve the safety of staff and students."

It's a big job, one that has become far more challenging in recent years as a result of the district's explosive growth. In this decade alone, enrollment has about doubled in Spring ISD, from 16,000 to more than 32,000 students, 25,000 of whom are bused to their respective schools. To ensure that the right students get on the right bus, about five years ago the district implemented the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Students would enter the bus and pass by a card reader, which picked up the information on their tags and transmitted it via a GPS-enabled cell phone device to a district server, where any school could then pull up the data to see the bus' location, who was on it, and which students got off it in what neighborhood. Bragg says the program was successful for a few years, but the cost of the hardware and keeping up with updates prohibited the district from using the system over the long run.

The past year and a half has been spent developing what Bragg calls "the next generation of R F I D," which Spring ISD is piloting this fall in three of its schools and on about 40 buses. It's a more far-reaching effort at student monitoring, employing a combination GPS/RFID card that can track a student for up to 300 feet from each of several modules installed throughout a school.

The card was developed by the San Antonio-based Wade-Garcia & Associates, with input from the district. "We told them what we wanted it to do," Bragg says, explaining that the district needed a card that could monitor students' comings and goings not only on and off buses, but in and around campus as well. The multipurpose card, which displays the user's image, is being used for access control, bus riding, cafeteria purchases, and checking out library books. "We took it to the next level," Bragg says.

An important benefit of the card is better record keeping. Bragg explains that students can be wrongly marked absent if not in their classrooms when roll is called. This new RFID card can verify that they were on another part of the campus at the time so districts don't miss out on state and federal funding that is tied to attendance levels.

Bragg says that being able to pinpoint students' location inside the school can be crucial in a crisis. "If there's a fire or an explosion in a corridor, or there is an intruder," he says, "we know if there are students trapped in that corridor." The individual ID numbers embedded in each card are viewable by Bragg's staff. "RFID would tell us who is at risk and also which students are safe in other parts of the building," Bragg explains, "so we could have law enforcement and first responders get those persons to the closest evacuation route or door. To me that's a huge, critical thing."

"There are parents who come to school to have lunch with their child and are convicted sex offenders, but they know that we know who they are. They know we're keeping an eye on them."

Visitor Monitoring

As the district hardens against outside influences, its effort to eliminate or at least reduce potential external threats has led to the placement of nearly 1,700 cameras in Spring schools; by January there will be as many as 2,000. Sony and Dedicated Micros cameras snap the images, which are captured on Dedicated Micros DVRs.

In addition, the district has implemented a visitor tracking system from Raptor Technologies called V-soft that essentially acts as a digital gatekeeper. Every visitor to a Spring school-- whether parent, volunteer, or vendor-- must check in at the front desk, surrendering his driver's license to a secretary, who checks it against a national database of sex offenders. The visitor waits inside a secure glass vestibule until cleared to enter.

"There are parents who come to school to have lunch with their child and are convicted sex offenders, but they know that we know who they are," Bragg says. "They know we're keeping an eye on them. We've gotten hits while checking, and we keep an eye on that person.

"If somebody's really determined to get into a school and they have a highenough- caliber weapon, they're going to get in. The ID checks serve as a huge deterrent to most would-be criminals."

"People need to realize that the day of the open campus is changing," says Allan Measom, CEO of Raptor Technologies.

The system works swiftly and effectively. When a school official scans a visitor's driver's license, the information is transmitted to Raptor. If the data matches someone on the company's sex offender registry, the arrest photo is e-mailed to the school, lining it up next to the driver's license image. An onscreen prompt asks: Is this the person registering?

If the school official clicks yes, local police get an e-mail or text message. In many cases, it may be a parent who is a registered sex offender and is then given restricted access. "Many offenders have been stopped from working or volunteering at schools," Measom says. "In a few cases, police have tracked down offenders and arrested them."

Measom says that V-soft is in operation at about 5,000 schools across 39 states, with another 1,000 schools ready for installation. In the 2007-2008 school year, according to Measom, the system identified 1,100 registered sex offenders nationwide. "Of those," he says, "10 percent were absconded from other states." The significance of that is, though that 10 percent of sex offenders may not provide their names to their new state's sex offender registry, as is required by law, they will remain in Raptor's database and thus will be flagged if trying to enter a K-12 school.

The Next Phase

Bragg says that Spring ISD is always making upgrades to its security system. This year will see the implementation of a mass notification system: Connect-Ed from Blackboard Connect. The system interfaces seamlessly with a school's database of parent names and contact information. Within 25 minutes, a message can be delivered to more than 60,000 parents by their preferred choice of delivery, including phone, text, page, or cell phone.

This fall, the district's police department will add more applications to its Enhanced 911 package. With the use of E911 and IP-addressable telephones in each classroom, the emergency services unit is already able to locate the geographic position of any 911 caller. The new E9111 software, Braggs says, will allow the district to monitor the audio of an emergency call as it is happening at the 911 call center in downtown Houston.

Another level of security is provided by two portable metal detectors that Spring keeps at each of its secondary schools and are wheeled out to randomly selected classrooms throughout the week. A school administrator and a police officer watch as each student in the class files out of the room and passes through the device.

Similar security efforts are being undertaken throughout Texas, where Bragg says about 175 or so of the approximately 1,050 school districts now have their own police departments. Districts and law enforcement in the state are under a strict mandate, as spelled out in the Texas Education Code, to keep schools safe and secure, and are urged to work hand-in-hand as they analyze vulnerability to violence, theft, and vandalism, as well as suggest technologies that can address the problems in an effective manner. Topics of interest include security concepts and operational issues, video surveillance, weapons detection devices (metal detectors, X-ray baggage scanners), entry controls, and duress alarms.

"We get a lot of visitors every year previewing our security system and emergency preparedness policy," Bragg says. "It's working well, but we all know it only takes one incident to hurt students or staff. We try to stay ever vigilant and prepared."

Ralph C. Jensen is the associate publisher/ editor of Security Products.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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