If you visit the District of Manatee County in Florida, be ready to hand over your driver's license to have it swiped and checked against a database of sex offenders.
Welcome to 21st-century school security in a post-9/11 world. While many districts have adopted programs and equipment to deter violence, including more recently kidnapping and child molestation, Manatee County schools take a novel and comprehensive approach to security. District leaders integrate prevention, intervention, staff development, and regular communication with law officials, periodic assessments, emergency training and planning, and mental health support as part of the district's overall safety and security plan.
Florida is one of two states that mandate criminal background checks and fingerprinting for anyone working for or regularly visiting a school. "It's the sign of the times," says Ozell Hayes, safety and security specialist for the district. "Everyone wants to be safe at work and to know their loved ones are safe, especially at school. So we have to do everything to make sure everyone is protected."
Every one of Manatee County's 51 schools is equipped with cameras, motion detectors, the visitor management system, infrared systems, which are used after hours to track a burglar in a school via body heat, and a Web-based student accident reporting system, which lets staff record every student accident, whether on the playground, the football field, in the gym, or in the hallway.
The StudentWatch Accident Reporting System allows Hayes to track everything from potentially faulty playground equipment to whether a student has been in several accidents at school. "It can trigger whether someone is being harassed by a classmate," he explains. Because the reports can be completed quickly, they are done more often and received in a day rather than three weeks, as was the case in the past.
Manatee County schools' safety measures have taken years-and millions of dollars-to implement and hone, says Superintendent Roger Dearing. "Good security plans give a sense of confidence and assurance to parents and the community that we take their children's safety very seriously," he says. In its first year using the visitor management system, called Raptor, the district prevented three sex offenders from entering school buildings at different times. Local law officials arrested one of the men, who had fled from Indiana. "This has been a great tool and has allowed us to find offenders who otherwise would have slipped under the radar," says Kim Zinc, a deputy sheriff in Manatee County, who is notified if a person trying to enter a school comes up on the sex offender list.
The district also has emergency response teams in each school that include school administrators, a nurse, head custodian, and heads of departments. Each team member, as well as all faculty members, must attend mandatory training classes in how to handle staff and students during a lockdown, power outage, or something as serious as a bomb threat. The Web-based staff training sessions can be done from school or home. Staff are reminded if they missed a session, and administrators are notified if a staff member hasn't completed a course. "It keeps everyone on their toes," Hayes says of the training. "We have to be ready for anything, any time."
Lucille Renwick is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.