October 12, 2014

Schools mull computer background checks on visitors

10-12-2014 Connecticut:

A proposal to keep sex offenders and other criminals out of city schools by doing instant background checks and issuing photo IDs to all visitors could well be jettisoned before it is even tried.

Parents, members of the public and even school board members expressed concern that instead of keeping students safe, the system would become a deterrent to parent involvement for individuals who are undocumented, have pasts they want to put behind them or who worry about personal information being collected and stored by the school.

"What I am hearing as a parent, this is going to be a big problem in our district," Tammy Boyle, president of the District Parent Advisory Council, said. "I can guarantee you if this is anywhere pertaining to what it seems like ... it is going to be a problem."

The idea, according to Police Lt. Paul Grech, who oversees school district security, is to create a visitor access system that is better than simply asking visitors to sign in and wear a green visitor sticker.

"We're committed to further ensuring our kids are safeguarded against sex offenders at school," Grech said. "This system helps us do just that by using 21st century technology."

He told members of the school board's security committee this week that the Fast Pass system -- as it is known -- is a tool other districts are turning to.

Using a portion of a $1.4 million school security grant the district received from the state following the December 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting that killed 20 first graders and six adults, the plan would require all visitors to a city school to show identification or give their name, which would be entered into a computer.

The computer would conduct instant background checks, and a printer would print out a temporary picture ID with the date, time and location.

About $20,000 would be enough to equip three schools with the system. Of that, $4,000 would come from the city.

Grech wants to try the system out first at the Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Campus, work out the bugs, and then bring it to the city's other high schools.

The system could be customized to collect as much, or as little information, as the board wants, said James Denton, a supervisor of school security. In the case of evacuation, it would also tell officials who was in the building.

"It is a way to give security guards ... another tool on their belt," Denton said.

Now in place

All 37 school buildings in the district have one or more security guards and share about a dozen school police officers, according to officials.

There are also security cameras in and around schools, but not enough. Board member Dave Hennessey said he wishes instead of a visitor access system, the state grant money could be applied to more pressing needs, like extra guards and security cameras for the 1,200 student Cesar Batalla School.

District schools have locked doors and a buzzer entry system. Since Sandy Hook, security guards began asking to see identification of visitors.

"The last thing we want is parents to feel that the police are going to come get them," said Hernan Illingworth, a school board member.

"We need to do a better job of keeping our children safe," Illingworth said.

At Central High School, which his daughter attends, Illingworth said even with security guards and metal detectors at the front entrance, people seem to be able to wander the hallways unchecked.

Board member Joe Larcheveque, chairman of the security committee, said there must be something to the system if other large urban districts use it with little push-back.

But board Chairwoman Sauda Baraka called the system potentially problematic. She worries that parents will be fearful and just not bother coming to school. She also said nothing can occur without a board policy change.

Board member Kenneth Moales, often at odds with Baraka, agreed that some parents wouldn't take the risk and would simply stay away from school.

The idea also concerns David McGuire, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

He said schools need to protect children but have to also be aware of the real potential for misuse of technologies.

"We'll be very concerned if parents are blocked from seeing their children in a school event or denied access to a parent-teacher conference only because, for example, they or someone with a similar name had a minor legal scrape in the past," McGuire said.

How it works

The Fast-Pass system is used in a number of other school districts according to Sisco Identification Solutions, the company that provides it.

Among them are Detroit, Miami-Dade County and Bronxville, N.Y. The only Connecticut school district now using the system is Killingly, a small 2,800-student district in the northeast corner of the state.

Paul V. Gerardi, the district's school resource officer and emergency management coordinator, said Fast-Pass has been in place for seven years -- long before Sandy Hook -- and the district has had no issues with it.

"It is a nice piece of technology," Gerardi said. "We would do whatever is necessary to protect the safety, security and welfare of the entire school community."

Gerardi is unsure of the initial cost, but said annual maintenance runs about $6,000, now that the warranty has run out. Main office staff in the district's five schools do the screening and issue the passes, which need to be turned in when visitors leave.

Nancy DuBois, an administrative assistant at Killingly Memorial School, said the process takes her about 30 seconds if the visitor has their license in hand.

Only about a dozen times in seven years has the computer screen gone red, indicating a sex offender match.

In each case, the additional information, like a middle initial, or picture ID helped clear the person, she said.

"If I ever got to the next step where I could not (clear the person), I would call for an administrator," DuBois said.

Gerardi said it is safe to say the system has uncovered someone on a sex offender list one or two times in seven years. Even then, entry to the school may not be denied if the visitor has a legitimate reason to be at the school, Gerardi said. It all depends on board policy. ..Source.. by Linda Conner Lambeck

No comments: