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Wireless Communication

Wireless technologies, particularly school networks, are a small but growing trend in American schoo

Drug dealing in American high schools can look as innocent as buying an ice cream cone. And that is exactly what happened in El Paso, Texas, last year.

An ice cream vendor decided to dish out another flavor last year in the student parking lot at Riverside High School in the Ysleta Independent School District, which borders Mexico, and this time it was Ganja ala Mode.

The legitimate ice cream vendor was handing out ice cream cones filled with marijuana to up to a dozen students every other day and administrators finally caught wind of it from an informant.

What made the quick bust possible was a wireless personal digital assistant.

A young, female officer posed as a student buying the super duper cone and with her Palm Pilot handheld at the same time, took photos of the dealer, photos of the van, and a close-up of the license plate, says Ron Livermore, coordinator for instructional technology initiatives for the district, where 88 percent of students are Hispanic and 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

"That's hard-core evidence," Livermore says. "It's normally hard to get a security officer and School Resource Officer [SRO] to gather information on the vehicle without him [the offender] catching on to what you're doing."

With the handheld, pictures were instantaneous and sent to the security people at the school, who were able to track down the vendor and his van via the SRO's resources, Livermore says.

The undercover officer also took photos of students buying the special cones. Before 3,000 Palms were put in the hands of administrators and on-campus security guards and SROs last year, students who were suspects for some problem in school would be pulled out of class, brought to the main office and asked questions where administrators would try to "scare" them to get the truth, Livermore says.

Now, the proof is on the Palm. Given that the Palms have all student information including photographs, which schools extract from the student photo ID system; nicknames; and class schedules, the students are dealt with immediately at the scene of the alleged crime.

"We're a very heavy handheld district," Livermore says. "It's a big rumor mill, that's what schools are. Someone heard from someone about what might happen. It's about immediacy. Now you have the immediacy of information. You really make the administrator the information manager. Before, they were bound to an antiquated system. Now they have the resources to manage their time and information."

Using wireless technology--as in 802.11 network wireless, or full roaming network, which is embedded in a school buildings ceilings so laptops and handhelds can communicate without wires--and cell phones is still minimal but growing in American schools, according to Darrell Walery, who is a member of the CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee and director of technology, Nextel and IP wireless phones for security in District 230 in Overland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb. The IP, or Internet Protocol, connection keeps information in real time because it can connect to a student database, he adds, as opposed to merely using wireless access cards in laptops or handhelds which do not give the most timely information and which can cause tech headaches. Using IP phones in District 230 schools allow administrators or nurses to directly dial 911, saving valuable seconds in case of a medical emergency, Walery explains.

Gangs Wired Shut

Given Ysleta's big gang population, administrators in 11 schools, mainly high schools, now have the luxury of Palm Treo 650s with Bluetooth and infrared wireless transmission, which sync to computers and can connect to printers. The goal is for every teacher to have one. Handhelds are used in the classroom as well as hallways, cafeterias, and sports fields using TruSmart's ScheduleFinder software, which compresses all student information including student attendance, grades, class schedules, discipline reports, nicknames, and photographs.

If there was a fight in the hallway, the old procedure included having the administrator "drag" the witnesses and fighters back to the office to gather details for a report, Livermore says. Other students left behind took advantage of this, knowing they were in the hallway without adult supervision and then had retaliatory fights.

Now, administrators can gather all the information in their palms--taking photos of the victim's facial bruises to filling out the incident report--in the hall. And as more administrators stay in hallways for longer periods of time, fewer fights or problems will arise. And teachers feel like they don't have to be the primary disciplinarians, he says.

"There is no bigger deterrent than an administrator in the hallway," Livermore adds.

It also keeps innocent witnesses in class because they no longer have to spend up to an hour in the main office with administrators. It is all done in the hallway, Livemore says.

The school also keeps a weekly "most wanted" list of students that are tagging, a form of graffiti using personal symbols, or active gang members so administrators and security officers can keep a look out for them. They can also be alerted immediately about students loitering on a football field and shoo them away.

If administrators hear from an informant at 2:30 p.m. about a fight to happen at 3:30 p.m. in the school parking lot, an administrator can get answers quickly via the informant. If the informant gives a nickname, like Angel and Angel's grade, the administrator can do a reverse search and find all Angels in that grade. Based on the photographs, the student can pick him out and the administrator can thwart it before it erupts by keeping Angel in the office until well after 3:30, Livermore says.

Reverse searches can also be done on vehicle license plates or school locker numbers, for example, if drug-sniffing police dogs find drugs in school. Administrators can track the student and ask him or her about it.

Not only has it helped with security, but Palms have helped cut down on tardiness, Livermore says. Before Palms, late students to class would be collected by security guards, be sent to the main office, and returned to class, often wasting an hour of instructional time. Livermore says now, administrators can walk the halls, looking for disruptions. When students are found outside classroom doors after the late bell rings, administrators with handhelds can ask the student's name and get his entire school schedule, along with his photograph. If students give a false name, they are easily found out, Livermore says. "Tardiness has dropped dramatically," he says.

New School Finds Same Efficiency

At the two-year-old McKinley Technology High School, which is part of the Washington, D.C., public school system, handhelds are also keeping the 612 students in grades 9-11 getting ready for college or the outside world in check, knowing that administrators and security guards are hooked in with HP iPAQ's. "We lack the history to show any track record, but my gut feeling is that kids know the adults are connected with each other, via the technology, and it acts as a retardant to misbehavior," says Principal Daniel Gohl.

The school is using Defywire's Mobile Guardian wireless solution, which keeps track of students' whereabouts using the HP personal digital assistant.

Bus drivers, for example, can keep them on their buses and by using GPS technology, administrators can keep track of bus routes and where they travel, according to Jill Stelfox, CEO of Defywire. Teachers, administrators, security officers and others also have in their hands all student medical and contact information in case of an emergency. For example, if a student is late for history class, the teacher can pull up the student's information and see that the student is diabetic. Maybe she collapsed in a bathroom and can't get help, so guards are sent to find her, Stelfox says.

If administrators have this technology, parents can also receive real-time updates on their children, such as if a child doesn't show up to class. Teachers and administrators can send parents e-mail or text messages on their cell phones to keep them informed, Stelfox says.

"In some ways, there is a Big Brother factor and some ways there is not," Stelfox says. "With school information, there are a bunch of rules to deliver computer information to schools. So we have in our software the highest level of security. The data is secure and rogue students can't get a hold of it. The right information is in the hands of the teachers and that's OK with me. It allows them to do their jobs better and if it saves lives, that is great."

Using five handhelds at McKinley Tech allows Gohl, the assistant principal and security guards to stay in hallways and file reports, such as for verbal fights, right then and there. "The power of having Web forms in a mobile device is that you can format the output and have it sent simultaneously to all parties [such as Gohl, a guidance counselor and assistant principal] involved," Gohl says. "And you can look for trends on the data, which is not possible with paper-and-pen reports."

Police Power

Efficiency is also the winning word for the Los Angeles School Police Department, which has 320 officers fielding up to 200 or more calls daily. They must file at least 70 reports a day, many of which deal with racial fights, robberies and burglaries. Using Panasonic's Toughbooks, which are virtually indestructible laptops made for the military, the officers that patrol the roads around the school district have information at their fingertips, in their cars, wirelessly.

Compudyne Public Safety & Justice Inc., which recently signed a contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District worth $1.8 million, includes new Computer Aided Dispatch, Records Management and Field Reporting systems to support the police department that serves more than one million students and personnel. With the laptops, officers can be in contact with the dispatch center.

Officer James Isakson, a police officer in the department's technology unit, explains that the program allows officers to analyze and map the data to see the hot spots for crime. "You get a better view of what is happening where," he says. "A lot of robberies might be happening here, so we can send a task force to that area."

"Campus officer are there to prevent violence and if it does occur we're there to assist school administration and get the campus under control."

In another example, an officer that sees a car sitting in a school parking lot and people inside that look suspicious can run the license plate through the laptop program. The dispatch center can give information on that plate, such as that the car is stolen and the people inside are considered dangerous, Isakson says. "Officers can take action to prevent acts of violence," he says.

And using the laptops to run license plate numbers or any other information instead of using the much-used radio system, which has two frequencies for calls, saves time, frees up the amount of radio traffic, Isakson says.

The system also maps out locations of incidents, such as a school building and classroom where there is a medical problem. "I can't say that crime would decrease [using the program and laptops] but it makes the officer's job in the field much easier," Isakson says. "And being present tends to be a proactive stance, while kids see you there."

Even one step beyond, having a full IP solution at the Grossmont Union High School District in the La Mesa area of California allows police officers that oversee security to see on their handheld what a SONY IP Video Monitoring System and PTZ Network surveillance camera witnesses outside all 12 high school campuses. The high-tech camera can zone in on license plate numbers in the distance and can watch loitering students on a school field, which patrolling officers will see in their own hands. Superintendent Terry Ryan says with the camera, insurance rates have dropped due to less vandalism, graffiti and arson concerns. "People are aware of the camera and it's kind of a Big Brother thing, but people don't do that kind of stupid thing anymore," says Sean Matsuoka, Sony's marketing manager. "It's to secure the safety of the students so kids can focus on really studying."

Future of Safety in Hands

WiFi technology on handhelds, for the future, will also allow administrators to look up more personal information on students, such as volunteer work or if their parent was arrested or evicted from their home the day before. It might explain why the student is acting out or not in class, Livermore adds. "It's a little big Brother," he admits. "But you need information."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.