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School Security | Feature

Securing School Laptops

K-12 campuses are hotbeds for laptop theft. Here's how to give your schools a fighting chance at protecting themselves.

Top 10 Places Consumer Computers Are Stolen

1. K-12 Schools
2. Residential Properties
3. Automobiles
4. Businesses/Offices
5. Universities and Colleges
6. Hotels and Motels
7. Restaurants and Cafes
8. Stores and Shopping Malls
9. Public Transit (includes taxis, buses, trains, etc)
10. Airports (terminals, security checkpoints, storage areas and airport restaurants)

Source: Absolute Software

The results are in, and they don't bode well for K-12 school districts with laptop-toting students and teachers. According to Absolute Software, such institutions sit at the top of the list of target areas for the pilfering of mobile computers. The list is based on theft reports filed over a one-year period with the Vancouver-based company, which makes anti-theft solutions for mobile devices.

Districts with 1:1 implementations are particularly vulnerable to laptop theft, thanks to the sheer number of mobile devices that they have in circulation. Some have taken the high-tech approach to protecting their investments, while others stick to more traditional methods that are similar to the old ways of preventing the theft of library books.

"We bought a $9,000 laser etching machine and engraved our school name and logo on the cover of all our laptops," said Michael Lee, network administrator and CIO at Putnam Valley Central School District, which rolled out its 1:1 program about six years ago. "That step alone basically reduces a computer's street value to zero."

During that time, Lee said, very few of the school's 1,700 MacBooks have gone missing. Because stolen computers are likely to be pawned or sold off to the highest bidder, Lee said, the school name and logo wards off potential buyers. "You really can't sell a computer when there's a school name emblazoned across its cover," said Lee. "It's hard to put something like that on eBay without it being noticed."

To further protect its investment, the district also established internal policies regarding laptop theft and loss, and uses a software tracking program when necessary. "When a student loses a computer and is forthright about the mishap," said Lee, "we've been able to track it down using our software."

With 39 schools and 15,000 laptops circulating among its students and teachers, Klein Independent School District in Texas uses tracking software, engraving, and training to ensure that the devices stay in the right hands.

Karen Fuller, chief technology officer, said most of the theft associated with its 1:1 laptop initiative has involved teachers, rather than students. "We had a situation where a teacher had her laptop stolen on the way home from school, right off the front seat of her car at a grocery store," recalled Fuller, "before she even had a chance to use it."

Utilizing that crime as an example of how not to protect a laptop, Fuller said, she now impresses upon teachers the need to "take your computer with you everywhere"--into the restaurant, shopping mall, or other public area where thieves may be on the prowl. In fact, she said, most of the challenges Klein ISD has had with laptop theft have been initiated off campus and not in school.

"It just takes a lot of education and enforcement to make people realize that leaving a computer in a car is basically like saying 'break in and take me,'" said Fuller. The district also hands out carrying cases, in hopes that both staff and students will use them to tote the computers with them everywhere off or on campus, from the lunchroom to the classroom to the gym.

Using a series of "Tablet Camps," the district also trains students on how to protect and care for their equipment. All policies and procedures are discussed in a group setting over several days, with some of the camps delving more deeply into the use of the computers in conjunction with specific subjects (English, math, and so forth). The sessions were designed for incoming ninth grade students, with "refresher" courses provided for older students as needed.

"Our camps not only help us enforce the need to maintain the devices," said Fuller, "but also show students how to use all of the different content areas that [reside] on our learning management system."

When a laptop is stolen, Fuller said, the student or teacher must submit a police report. ("Lost" laptops are given 24 hours to turn up before being reported as stolen.) Then, the district puts its laptop tracing software to work to find the missing equipment. "If the laptop is still on our network," said Fuller, "then the software pings us and gives us the vicinity where it's located."

Fuller said such software pays for itself after recovering just one or two laptops. "These devices are worth a lot of money, so you really have to have some type of anti-theft deterrent in place," said Fuller, "especially if you're in a highly populated district where [theft or loss] is inevitable, based on the sheer volume of computers being circulated."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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