In a move to keep sex offenders from roaming school halls, Anne Arundel County school officials want to buy a computer system that would allow them to check the names of visitors against national and state sex offender registries.
On Wednesday, school officials will ask the county Board of Education to set aside more than $300,000 in next year's budget to buy the system, which could make it the first school district in the Baltimore area to require such screening for visitors, including parents.
Those who pass the check would receive a visitor badge - with a photo - that tells school staff who visitors are, when they arrived and where they're going.
But if a visitor's name showed up on one of the sex offender databases, school staff, security and possibly the police would be immediately notified. School officials have yet to develop rules covering such cases, including when parents are convicted sex offenders.
State law doesn't prohibit sex offenders from entering Maryland schools, though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has introduced legislation to expand trespassing laws to keep offenders off school grounds.
The request for the new system follows the arrest of a convicted sex offender at Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie last fall. The man was arrested and charged with trespassing after school officials recognized him from a photo on the state sex offender registry, but the charge was later dropped. Officials said the proposal predates that incident.
"I think it's an excellent idea. Right now, we don't know who's coming in the schools," said Pasadena parent Debbie Ritchie, who is president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs and a school volunteer. "It's an added layer of security for our kids."
One Anne Arundel school board member, Enrique Melendez, says he supports the concept but wants to make sure the technology is worth the money.
"From a security perspective, I think it'd be good. I think it's well-justified," Melendez said. "But I think it's got to be looked at. I am for technology, but it has to show it has a good return on the investment."
The proposal is the latest example of stepped-up security at area schools. School systems nationwide have adopted lockdown policies since the 1999 Columbine shootings, and several Baltimore-area school systems have installed security cameras in hallways and on school grounds. Many schools have increased the number of police officers on campuses and at after-school sports in an effort to protect students.
But the highly publicized abduction and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida last year by a convicted sex offender - a contract employee at her school - has spurred a push to keep schools more secure from outsiders. Some school systems in Florida and elsewhere already are using the kind of "visitor tracking technology" that Anne Arundel officials want.
"Last year, we had a pilot program in three schools. We really are so happy with it, we decided to invest in it," said Sheila Weiss, a spokeswoman for Sarasota County public schools in Florida. "We take the protection of our children seriously."
The county is now installing the computer system in all 40 public schools.
Anne Arundel's request for the tracking technology initially came from the school system's office of volunteer programs as a way to more easily keep track of volunteer hours, a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"We can satisfy everybody with this system," said Shelly Duncan, the school system's director of technology.
The technology being requested, which is similar to what Sarasota schools are using - calls for a computer terminal to be set up in each school where a visitor or volunteer would sign in. The procedure would vary, depending on which system is purchased, but a likely scenario would require a visitor to swipe a driver's license or state-issued ID card at the computer terminal. Other systems available also use biometrics, such as fingerprint mapping or iris scans for return guests.
Weiss said Sarasota's policy for dealing with sex offenders varies from school to school, but generally, anyone who is listed on the registry would be asked to leave the school and would be escorted out by a school resource officer - unless they were a parent.
"It's pretty hard to ban a parent from having lunch with their child or watching their child" in a school performance, she said. In those cases, parents are watched closely to ensure that they have contact with no children but their own.
If the school board and County Council approve funds for the computers, the school board would need to revise its visitors policy.
This month, the Anne Arundel school board adopted a policy that requires parents and other visitors to sign a roster when visiting a school and wear a pass while there. Classroom visits have to be arranged in advance.