Florida School District Uses A High-Tech Screening System To Protect Students From Sexual Predators

Hernando County School District's safety and security program complies with tougher state standards and helps protect students at school.

In March 2005, the news of the abduction and murder of Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old resident of Homosassa, Fla., shook families and parents around the country. After confessing to the crime in Georgia, John Evander Couey, a registered sex offender, was charged with capital murder, battery, kidnapping and sexual battery on a child under the age of 12.

Lunsford, a third-grader at Homosassa Elementary School in Citrus County, was taken from her home on February 23. She was sexually assaulted and then buried alive. Her body was found more than three weeks after she vanished.

After the brutal murder, outraged officials quickly drafted and pushed a bill through the lawmaking process that Governor Jeb Bush signed into legislation on May 2, 2005. Now known as the Jessica Lunsford Act, this piece of legislation has significantly altered Florida’s sex offender and predator laws.

Among the stiffer penalties and requirements the act has instituted, the Lunsford Act also addressed student safety from sex offenders and predators while at school. Noninstructional school district employees and contractual personnel, such as vendors, who have direct contact with students now must meet level 2 background screening requirements.

Level 2 screenings include complete criminal checks in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and FBI databases for past offenses. Prior to the act, only school staff and district employees were required to undergo level 2 background checks, says Barry Crowley, coordinator of safety and security for Florida’s Hernando County School District (HCSD).

BECOMING COMPLIANT

Located one county south of Lunsford’s murder, HCSD was one of the state’s first districts to successfully comply with the FDLE’s Sept. 1, 2005, deadline for implementing the level 2 screening process.

As mandated by another state law, the district also conducts level 1 screenings for volunteers, and it goes beyond that to screen all parents and other visitors to its campuses. The level 1 screenings consist of a sex offender or predator check of 43 state databases, according to Crowley.

He says safety has always been a top priority for the district. With more than 21,000 students and 3,700 staff, HCSD has a lot of heads to keep track of every day at its 21 schools — and that’s not including parents and outside visitors.

“Our original safety plan was implemented in 1998,” says Crowley. “At that time, it was a combination of the state department of safety and our insurance company telling us to implement a written safety program. Then in 2001, Columbine reinforced it.”

Early last year, the district began searching for software that would enable it to better manage its volunteers and track volunteer hours. As Cynthia Peters, Hernando’s Management Information Services (MIS) director, recalls, “We were initially looking for a product to help us process various levels of volunteers and log their hours, which are reported to the Department of Education.”

At that time, Crowley was also looking for a way to better track visitors, so a committee of nine employees from the school district’s MIS, Safety and Security, Maintenance, Facilities and School Support Services departments and the Volunteers in Education was formed to help look at options that might present a good one-size-fits-all solution.

In August, the school district spent $38,000 for the software and equipment it chose, including a driver’s-license scanner, temporary ID printer and a software license for each check-in site. The package also included a maintenance agreement and the offsite national database that it draws from, which is updated every two weeks.

A SAFE START

“Our system has been in place [since the beginning of the school year], and has been working extremely well,” says Crowley. The level 1 background checks have already uncovered about 12 visitors as offenders or predators since the start of the school year, including a copy machine installer and several parents.

Red flags for any type of issue automatically generate a text message to the school administrators’ and school resource officer’s cell phones. In addition, the system logs all incidents via e-mail, which helps administrators keep records of any past issues or incidents.

With the new system in place, administrators and directors now have the ability to track everyone on campus. Maintenance staff can easily track all of their workers, and administrators can have an accurate count of all parents and visitors in their building.

Beth Zacharias, Title 1 parent educator and community liaison for HCSD’s Eastside Elementary School, says, “The technology allows us to see during an emergency exactly who is on campus. In the event of a lockdown, we’d know who was on campus other than the teachers and students, including visitors, community members, agency members and social workers. That’s a big benefit right there.”

BEING VIGILANT

Besides the screening system, HCSD also has a video surveillance system in place at all 21 schools. The district currently has about 800 cameras, which it started installing six years ago — first at the high schools, then the middle schools and finally the elementary schools. Every year the district adds about $125,000 worth of cameras.

The district uses Web servers for its security cameras, and every 16 cameras have one IP address. “The cameras run on our wide area network and are accessible from any computer within the schools, as well as to outside agencies like the local sheriff’s department and fire and rescue,” says Crowley.

Marvin Gordon, the principal at Dolores S. Parrott Middle School, uses that surveillance system to monitor various activities on his campus from one location. “Sometimes we have relied on the system to help with discipline issues,” he says.

“For example, we had a student that did something minor at the beginning of the school year, and we could tell he was not telling the truth [because we] had caught him in the act. So we took the student into the room where the system is housed and showed him.”

Even though Hernando County’s safety and security system is more than enough to comply with state mandates from the Jessica Lunsford Act, the school district continues to look for ways to increase student safety both on and off campus.

HCSD is looking at a biometric student- and bus-tracking system that will allow administrators to see where all school buses are at any time and which students are on those buses. HCSD’s current tracking process is tedious and slow.

“We are hoping this will make it faster and easier to track students,” Crowley says.

SMOOTH TRANSITIONS

Any change in protocol is bound to encounter some bumps in the road, but Hernando County made a fairly smooth transition to its new screening system by ensuring that office staff members were well trained in how to handle potential issues and that parents were well informed.

Central High School’s Principal Dennis McGeehan offers this advice: “Communication to parents is very important. We let parents know [about the system] through the school newsletter and also put up new signage by the check-in points. Communication helped get things established, and now parents show up with license in hand and are ready.”

Despite some initial issues and inconveniences, the parent response has been overwhelmingly positive. As Zacharias sums up, “We [teachers and parents] all think the program is fantastic and reliable. Parents are using it effectively and without trouble now.

“I think it’s necessary in our world today, and if we want to keep our kids safe, it’s a great way to do it.”

Jane Soung is a Skokie, Ill.-based freelance writer and editor.

6 Tips for a Successful Setup

Barry Crowley, safety and security coordinator for Hernando County Schools, offers the following advice for school districts looking to implement a software screening system.

1. Talk to everyone: Communicate with all administrators in advance to find out how many points will be needed to check people in. Hernando County, for example, didn’t include adult-ed facilities the first time. Make sure to cover all locations that will need to scan visitors and vendors.

2. One-stop software: Test-drive and choose software that does everything you need. “Some members of our purchasing committee wanted to choose software for one item instead of an entire package that could do everything because it seemed cheaper,” says Crowley. But purchasing multiple software packages may end up being more costly.

3. Build bandwidth: If you don’t have enough bandwidth to access offsite and out-of-state systems and databases, you will need an additional software package to keep the database in-house on your own server.

4. Processing power: Make sure your computers have enough processing power to run the software. On a slow machine, it can take up to two minutes to process one driver’s license. On a faster machine, you can scan 10 licenses per minute. Speed is critical.

5. Save space: Regular CRT monitors used too much space in the front office check-in stations. Hernando County purchased 20 flat-screen monitors to save space, and the office staff was much happier as a result.

6. Train staff: Office staff members were trained to explain exactly what the license scan reveals — convicted sex offenders and predators — so that parents understood that the scan did not bring up every major or minor offense.

NOMINATING A STAR

Hernando County School District is the current winner of CDW•G’s Tinfoil Star Award, which honors educators who use technology to enhance learning. To submit a nomination, visit edtechmag.com and click on the “feedback” button to send an e-mail.

Oct 31 2006

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