Hand It Over!

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Districts are turning to the latest in mobile technology to crack down on age-old campus crime problems such as graffiti and theft.

SecurityWHETHER VANDALISM, inappropriate dress, a drug deal, or a fight, an incident at a high school in Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, TX, used to trigger the same result: Security officials marched the offenders to a central office to identify them, log a report, and check class schedules to seewhere those students belonged.

But that took time and left key corridors unpatrolled, an unintended invitation that other troublemakers often anticipated and took advantage of.

As a remedy, the district, which covers 45,000 K-12 students across 60 campuses, recently introduced in its seven high schools a system built on handheld Palm Pilot devices running a software product from Trusmart Technologies called ScheduleFinder, which lets officials remain stationed in school hallways even when a problem arises. Using their PDAs, security guards and administrators can check student schedules, access emergency information, identify students by photo, and with some devices, even take pictures of incidents as they happen.

The district tested the system for a year at a single high school and had “fairly dramatic results,” according to Ron Livermore, Ysleta’s coordinator of instructional technology initiatives. As a consequence, he convinced the other six high schools in the district to adopt the same setup. Over the next year, the system will be launched in the district’s middle schools as well.

Although the pilot school made no formal announcement when it introduced the handhelds and software, Livermore says, incidents involving graffiti at the high school quickly plummeted. In one use of the PDAs that proved effective, security officers employed the devices’ embedded cameras to photograph kids scrawling graffiti, catching them red-handed. The captured image of the students and their handiwork was then beamed immediately to the rest of the security staff.

Putting their PDAs to further use, the school issued “Top People to Watch” and “Top 10 Student Wanted” lists, including photos of students, converted to a digital format for handhelds. Because of the photo capabilities of the new system, wanted students can no longer hide out by claiming to be someone else or using a fake name, popular tactics used previously. “It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in the security safety model,” Livermore says.

Security cameras were already in place at Ysleta ISD schools when the handhelds and ScheduleFinder were implemented. At the suggestion of CDW-G, a vendor-neutral supplier of IT solutions to governments and educators, the district selected PDAs that use the same sort of memory cards as the cameras. Using the same cards across devices means a card can be removed from a security camera and inserted in a PDA for quick replay of an event.

The PDAs, largely Tungsten E’s from Palm, can network with other devices via a wireless or infrared signal. Using the ScheduleFinder software, security staff and administrators download the day’s school schedule to their handhelds each morning. Other daily updates can be transmitted as well, which comes in handy for disseminating schedule changes, special events, and information on students with special needs or behavioral problems.

Security staff “carry the handhelds 24/7,” Livermore says. “Even at home. We want them to really be comfortable with them.” Along with schedules, the devices store a wealth of additional information, including standard schoolsecurity documents and handbooks, available via Adobe Acrobat Reader. ScheduleFinder contains student rosters complete with a “reverse search” capability that allows searches by nickname, student ID number, and even a student’s assigned parking space.

Livermore says that after eliciting requests for proposals, the district chose the ScheduleFinder program, partly because it seemed to be “built around how to improve campus security and campus safety. What [Trusmart] does, it does really well.”

Cost also makes the program a good match for the district, according to Rosario Dickerson, the district’s instructional technology trainer, who is now in charge of watching over the new system. The software is based on student population and priced per year at $2 per student; maintenance is another $1 per student. Both costs are capped at 1,200 students. “It’s very cost-efficient,” Rosario says, adding that the expense is“a very small amount comparedto the cost of replacinga computer lab due tovandalism.”

But as with any major change in procedures, making a system like this work requires buy-in from all the key stakeholders.“Work with campus administration closely, and thestudent database manager, to get them aligned,” Livermoreadvises. In particular, database managers “need to besome of the first people you talk to.”

He also suggests a detailed training plan that helps change how security officials and administrators work. In installing the new system at Ysleta, Livermore says, “we discovered that there was a systemic process to how administrators dealt with incidents.” No matter what the situation was, staff “brought the perpetrators back to the office,” creating delays. Convincing administrators to break that ingrained pattern, he says, can be a challenge. “Plan to do a lot of one-to-one professional development. Actually show them how to make it work.”

Livermore spent many hours with security guards and administrators, witnessing the problems they faced and helping to implement Ysleta’s new security system. “I saw the fights, I saw the drug deals, I saw the vandalism,” he says. “I saw it all because I was on the campus with them.”

[It's] a very small amount compared to the costof replacing a computer lab due to vandalism.
Rosario Dickerson, Ysleta ISD, on the per-student cost of the district's new security system

A Variety of Options

Handheld devices are only one element of a modernized security system. According to Rich Combs, security practice team lead with CDW-G, schools face a variety of choices in security products, including cameras, identity devices such as scanners or radio frequency identification (RFID) chip readers, and back-end software to collect, store, and provide reporting on security information.

Since a school’s largest security expense is generally the cost of personnel, adding cameras in select locations can extend a school’s security budget at a lower cost than simply hiring more security guards. If the devices are coordinated on a network, someone in one hallway with a handheld unit can access the network and check the video from a different spot on campus. “The officer can punch in to the network and see another hallway, or another area of the building,” Combs says. “That can maximize the presence of one person.”

An advantage of wireless security cameras, which can be as small as a person’s thumb, is indeed their wirelessness: They don’t require wires to connect them. Some can use a nine-volt battery, Combs says, which eliminates the need for running a power connection to each camera. In placing cameras, he suggests that schools consider their potential to act as deterrents. While it’s relatively easy to hide a small, wireless camera, sometimes making security cameras visible can be a better strategy, since they discourage bad behavior simply by their presence.

Another security option is a scanner with software that checks the scanned information against a database. This can be used for allowing access to buildings or labs, confirming the identity of a student, or quickly taking attendance electronically in class. But Combs says that because such systems require that students remember their ID cards, they’re generally used only in the upper levels of high school.

A third option is instituting a badge system that can be tied to handheld devices carried by security guards, who can scan a badge with a PDA device to confirm a student’s identity and schedule, for example.

In the end, security systems needn’t only be about breaking up fights in high school hallways and preventing vandalism. Ysleta, which is now extending the security system to its middle schools, hopes to eventually use the same system in its elementary schools as well, to address security issues such as using photo authorization for individuals who come to pick up a particular child after school.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.