Schools Use Security Tools, ID Checks to Screen Visitors

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Officials in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties say that, to better protect their students and schools, they are installing or considering ID scanners or security video intercoms, common at apartment buildings.

The most ambitious effort is in Prince William, the state's second-largest school system. The county has spent $130,000 on the Raptor visitor ID system to protect its nearly 73,000 students.

In Fairfax, nearly half the schools have begun using a computerized visitor authentication program. Loudoun is installing camera intercom systems outside the main entrances to all schools, a process that officials aim to finish by the end of this academic year. Arlington is interviewing companies and evaluating demonstrations of security systems similar to Prince William's.

Here is how Prince William's system works. Starting this week, parents and visitors must request permission to enter any of the county's 86 schools from a school official, who scans the visitor's government-issued identification, such as a driver's license, into a computer database, which stores the photograph and ID information. Next, the system checks the name against state sex offender registries. A school chaperone will escort any visitor tagged as a sex offender.

Under such a system, the visitor log sheets at Northern Virginia schools face demise.

"Shootings like the one at Virginia Tech drive some things, but a lot of what you see is driven by a general awareness that there's better security out there," said Jim McLain, the Fairfax County schools security coordinator. "The enhancements are clear. This creates a more secure environment, physically and in perception."

School officials said many such systems are useful in another way: They can track the number of hours volunteered by parents, a key figure used in schools' grant applications. With this technology, principals and staff members won't spend time manually counting hours.

One thorny issue that Prince William school officials debated was what to do when someone does not have a government-issued ID; the county is home to numerous undocumented immigrants.

School officials determined that any valid, government-issued ID with a date of birth, whether issued in the United States or elsewhere, will suffice, said Ken Blackstone, a spokesman for Prince William schools. He said the school system does not want to stop any parents from visiting schools to see their children.

When a registered sex offender visits, an alert will be sent to the wireless handheld devices of selected teachers and administrators in the school.

"The Raptor will send out text messages or any type of alert to administrators, and that administrator will talk to that person about what their options are, discreetly," said Ronald Crowe, the Prince William school system's administrative coordinator for security services. "Look, if you're a registered sex offender, the information is on a public registry. When you come to a school, you're going to have to be in the company of a staff member."

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