System to scan school visitors

Computer that prints photo ID, screens for offenders is approved

April 16, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Designed to help streamline visitor policies at Harford County schools, a new system approved this month that scans driver's licenses and prints temporary photo identification badges would also check visitors' names against a list of convicted sex offenders.

The plan to purchase the system follows a trend of schools across the country that are tightening visitor policies. Harford became the first school district in the Baltimore area to require such screening for visitors when it approved the $300,000 plan at an April 3 school board meeting.

A similar plan in Anne Arundel County, which features a computer system that would scan the state and national sex offender registry, was approved in March by that school board but awaits approval by the County Council.

Under Harford's plan, expected to be implemented at the start of the 2006-07 school year, visitors would be required to scan their driver's licenses in a computer system, which then prints out an ID badge displaying the person's name, photo and reason for being at the school.

"The more security, the better," said Chris Mack, the mother of a Havre de Grace middle- schooler. "A few of the buildings I've walked into, you can pretty much go where you want without much question. If you don't have anything to hide, I don't see why [the new system] would be a problem."

While officials had the option of having the computer system check IDs against broader sex-offender registries, Robert A. Benedetto Sr., the school system's coordinator of safety and security, said some parents were uneasy about their personal information being sent to an out-of-state server.

Instead, Benedetto said, the school system will generate a database of county sex offenders and other individuals noted by the Child Advocacy Center in Harford and school officials will be alerted by the system if a visitor's name matches a name in the database. That person would then be asked to leave and police would be notified.

Since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, schools across the country have adopted tougher security policies.

Several Baltimore-area school systems have installed security cameras and increased the number of police officers in hallways and on school grounds.

A committee of school officials in Harford is debating a new dress code that would target loose-fitting pants, which officials say could be used to smuggle weapons into school.

The highly publicized abduction and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida last year by a convicted sex offender has spurred efforts to keep schools more secure from outsiders. Some systems in Florida, as well as Texas and California, already are using visitor tracking technology similar to that approved by Harford.

Benedetto said the new system represents an effort to develop a consistent policy. Visitors at county schools are required to check in with the main office, but many schools have since developed variations.

"Once we go to this and we educate our volunteers and staff, every adult will have a photo ID visible at all times," Benedetto said.

A computer terminal would be set up in each school, operated by a volunteer or secretary. After scanning the driver's license, the visitor's information would appear on a computer screen and be printed out onto a sticker that would include the photo from the visitor's license. Details of the visit would be stored in the computer and archived.

After eight to 16 hours, red ink would bleed through to the surface of the sticker, indicating it had expired.

Parents and other visitors will not have to scan their license after it has been entered in the system the first time, though they will need a new sticker each time they visit the school. Schools will also have the option of using the system at school functions, such as back-to-school nights or student performances.

Duane Wallace, principal at Norrisville Elementary, said he and his school's PTA welcome the addition of the system. The school locks its doors during the day and requires visitors to sign in.

"It's not unnecessarily invasive on privacy and it has the potential for being an efficient and effective means for identifying and tracking visitors that come into the school building for legitimate reasons," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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