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Security Trends

The latest trends in school safety and security.

Preparing for a Pandemic

Unsure if or when the next flu pandemic might strike, public health officials are telling school districts to be prepared should the bird flu virus evolve to the point where it can spread easily from person to person.

Worldwide, there have bee n 194m exposure to infected poultry, according to the World Health Organization. But the spread of the stin in Asia and a human fatality rate of more than 50 percent have public health officials concerned.

Health authorities are telling districts to reexamine their emergency plans. "A pandemic is clearly different and that's what we're looking at," says Linda Erdos, director of school and community relations at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. "How are we going to act differently, given the fact that we don't know how it's going to affect our community ... and the schools?''

Districts preparing for a pandemic should:

-Coordinate with local and state public health officials to develop an operational pandemic plan. Work with them to establish an incident command center that will show clear lines of authority during a pandemic. "What we're asking now is for schools to begin working with those local officials to ensure that they are all part of the same plan," says Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Education.

-Develop scenarios for rampant absenteeism. Set pandemic-specific policies for students and staff, such as non-punitive, liberal sick leave. To reduce disruptions in services, cross-train staff members stationed at multiple work sites so that those employees can step in and perform essential functions. Explore ways that employees could telecommute from home.

-Create communication systems to maintain student learning during pandemic emergencies, such as providing lessons via Web sites, telephone trees, mailings, radio and television. Those mechanisms also can be used to keep parents informed of the pandemic.

-Talk with students and parents about pandemic flu including district emergency plans and preventative hygiene practices. The Arlington school district produced a 30-minute public access television segment to educate parents about pandemic flu. Providing accurate information helps dispel myths. "Parents are hearing things in the news all the time, but there is a lot of confusion," Erdos says.

Bus Drivers On Alert

A new line of defense is getting trained to combat potential terrorism: School bus drivers.

The new School Bus Watch program has already trained 30,000 drivers out of a total of 600,000 school bus drivers nationwide, according to Robin Leeds, industry specialist for National School Transportation Association, one of the collaborating groups.

The goal is to get them all trained to keep an eye out for suspicious packages left on school buses, strange things hidden in wheel wells, or strangers standing at school bus stops among students, Leeds says.

The program, financed by the Homeland Security Department, expands on the Highway Watch program, which involved transportation workers and truck drivers. Armed with cell phones and identification numbers, bus drivers can call in suspicious activity on buses or on their routes. To date, there have been no reported suspicious incidents, Leeds says.

N.J. School District Has an Eye on Security

The small Plumsted Township School District in New Egypt, N.J., made national headlines three years ago when it implemented an iris recognition security system to scan the colored portions of visitors' eyes.

Now another district-located only 20 miles away-has installed a more advanced version of the biometric technology with the aim of increasing safety and saving staff time. Both districts' technologies, worth about $20,000, were funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The security system at the Freehold (N.J.) Borough School District operates on a similar principle as that in New Egypt. A visitor looks into a small camera, which takes a digital picture and compares the unique iris pattern to the stored images on file.

If a match is found, the door to the school automatically opens.

Parents, teachers and staff could be assigned access rights at only certain schools or hours.

The Freehold system is voluntary for parents, staff and volunteers, who get their iris patterns stored in the computer system by looking into a second digital camera placed in a school office.

Freehold's technology, activated in January, goes beyond the mere entry-access functions used in New Egypt to include a visitor management system.

Parents and visitors whose iris patterns are on file after gaining entrance report to the office to get their eyes re-scanned by that second camera, at which point the school's visitor management software system performs additional security functions. A badge is printed containing the picture of the visitor and the person visited.

The system keeps a digital visitor log and also can "red flag" parents who have lost custodial rights and can't sign out their child.

The badges and red-flagging are also used for parents and other visitors who have not volunteered to have their irises scanned. After being manually buzzed in, they must still report to the office to register with the software system by providing basic information and having a picture taken to receive a badge. The visitor management system can "red flag" parents even without having an iris pattern record.

New software also sounds an alarm if someone tries to slink through the door by closely following a person who has just gained access through an iris scan.

In addition to boosting parents' and teachers' sense of security, the system also is less labor-intensive than a manual door-buzzer set-up, says Erika Jimenez, a Freehold teacher who was co-coordinator of the iris project.

About half of Freehold parents have volunteered to use the technology, Jimenez estimates. Some parents remain wary, wrongly assuming the system collects detailed personal information, she says.

"It's a lack of knowledge about the system and what it's used for," she says.

New Egypt parents have embraced the technology, says Tom Tramaglini, director of technology and supervisor of curriculum, instruction and assessment at the Plumsted district.

The iris technology has been effective, he says, adding that it has helped prevent some students from entering campuses they don't attend.

"I think it's a wise investment," Tramaglini says, "because in this kind of world that we live in, we really want to control who goes in and out of our schools."