Schools' Computer Flags Sex Offenders

Carolyn McLain of Lake Ridge Elementary School swipes a visitor's ID card to see whether a national database of sex offenders brings up a match. (Photo: Dayna Smith/Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Prince William County public school system yesterday rolled out a computerized security system to check for sex offenders at campus entry points and keep tabs on when visitors come and go, the latest sign that pen-and-paper visitor logs at front offices may be on the way out.

The debut of V-soft (for "visitor, student or faculty tracking"), also known as the Raptor, on 86 Prince William campuses comes as other schools in the Washington region are taking similar steps. The Raptor, devised by a Texas company, scans government-issued identification cards and checks them against a database of listings of 460,000 sex offenders from across the country.

School systems in Fairfax and Montgomery counties are piloting similar security programs or have made proposals to install them in coming years. Many Anne Arundel County schools use the Raptor, which so far has alerted officials to three sex offenders and led to one arrest.

By the end of the school year, Loudoun County officials hope to install intercoms and cameras outside each school building so that visitors would have to be buzzed in.

School officials who are overseeing such changes cite technological advances and increasing wariness over campus security.

In many cases, the security programs can also store parental custody information and tabulate parent volunteer hours. Such statistics can be important for grant applications.

"The technology industry is turning their attention to schools because they see a market for it," said Donna Bowman, manager of the Virginia Center for School Safety, an agency under the state's criminal-justice services department. "Whenever you have all this media attention to who's done this to a student or some pedophile who's gotten a school volunteer position, it heightens schools' attention."

Some immigrant-rights advocates worry that a move to check IDs in Prince William will be linked to the county government's recent crackdown on illegal immigrants, even though the Raptor is not plugged into any immigration database.

"Some people already spoke to me saying that they feared that their immigration status will be checked," said Ricardo Juarez, general coordinator of the D.C.-based Mexicanos sin Fronteras, or Mexicans Without Borders.

School officials stress that the only government databases being checked are sex-offender registries. No parents will be barred from seeing their children during the school day as long as they produce ID that includes their full name and date of birth, according to Ron Crowe, Prince William's administrative coordinator for security services. The school system, with nearly 73,000 students, is Virginia's second-largest.

Signs are being placed at schools' front desks to advise visitors that they can show an ID other than a U.S.-issued driver's license, such as foreign driver's license, a passport, a green card or a reentry permit.

School officials said that the only people who should worry about potential problems are sex offenders.

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