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.
Even if the Raptor identifies a visitor as a sex offender, the person might be allowed to stay on school property depending on the state and the offense but must be chaperoned at all times by school officials. Administrators are alerted immediately through mobile electronic devices, and the sex offender is advised about the chaperon discreetly.
The Raptor, which is in nearly 4,000 schools nationwide, finds about 25 sex offenders each day entering schools, according to Allan Measom, president and chief executive of Raptor Technologies. Company technicians monitor the databases from a Houston office and call schools when a sex offender is found.
One Woodbridge sex offender who has a stepdaughter at Osbourne Park High School near Manassas said that when he heard about the Raptor, he was angry.
"I am concerned, not only for myself, but for her. It would be embarrassing for her, with everyone knowing the reason why they're stopping me," said the man, 44, who was convicted in 2000 for sexually abusing his ex-wife's underage daughter. "But it's in place for the right reason. I made a mistake, and it never seems to go away. It was a one-time thing."
Yesterday, Prince William school officials would permit reporters to see the Raptor only at Lake Ridge Elementary School, which has been using the program since the spring.
Carolyn McLain, an office assistant who works at the front of the Woodbridge school and checks in visitors, said that only one sex offender has ever shown up on campus. The man quickly left once he was informed that the school knew about his history. "He didn't take offense. He was a very pleasant man," she recalled.
Parents entering Lake Ridge yesterday praised the system. Lupita Flanigan, who dropped off some quesadillas and juice for her first-grade daughter, said the process for getting in and out of the school is much faster than having to wait in a line while everyone signs a log sheet. But some other parents elsewhere questioned whether the system was worth the $130,000 cost.
"I'd rather give my teachers more money in their paycheck," said Ellsworth Brown, whose daughter attends Enterprise Elementary School in Woodbridge. "Is there a credible enough threat of sex offenders trying to enter the schools to warrant this deployment?"