Monday, April 13, 2015

Virginia State Police Spokeswoman Corinne Geller: “The bottom line is NOT every sex offender is prohibited from being on school property”

Henrico school security system organizes visitors, but can't stop intruders, April 13, 2015
By Ted Strong

As focus on school security has increased, school divisions have turned to high-technology solutions to lock children away from outside threats. But sometimes that new technology is far from a foolproof solution, and security still depends on the vigilance of teachers and staff. 

Take J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County as an example. 

The school has a new, high-tech system to identify visitors and check them against sex offender registries. But it is still a campus-style school with students traveling between rooms along open-air walkways, and it is visible from Parham Road. 

The new identification system rolled out countywide at the start of the school year and was part of a $2.2 million security upgrade. Visitors feed their driver’s licenses through a small scanner and the system then spits out a sticker with the visitor’s name and driver’s license photograph. 

The system isn’t used for events like theater performances and athletic events. It only applies to visitors during the school’s normal hours of operation. 

School officials view the scanner as a way to systematically track and log school visitors, Assistant Superintendent for Operations Al Ciarochi said. The scanners take names, dates of birth and pictures from the licenses. The names are then run against every state’s sex offender registry. 

Before the system was implemented, schools used a variety of sign-in procedures to verify visitors’ identity, but there was no consistency among them, he said. 

“It’s not a way to control, it’s a way of just accounting (for people),” Ciarochi said of the license scanner. 

Ciarochi said the main purpose of the scanners was to improve and organize the sign-in process. The sex offender check is valuable but wasn’t the goal, he said. 

“There was a vulnerability there — we weren’t checking them,” Ciarochi said. 

Chesterfield County schools have used the scanners since 2010. Richmond has the scanners at some but not all schools. Hanover County schools rely on other security measures. 

Since the scanners were introduced at the start of the school year, two visitors have been identified as registered sex offenders, Ciarochi said. Details of those cases weren’t immediately available. 

What exactly happens to a sex offender who tries to enter a school is likely to vary along with the specifics of the offender’s background and status, said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. 

A sex offender might have a court order allowing him or her on school property for a specific purpose, such as picking up a child, or might be a student at the school. Because of that, she said, state police, who would likely be contacted about such matters, have to look at each case individually. 

“The bottom line is not every sex offender is prohibited from being on school property,” Geller said. 

Ciarochi was clear that the technology can work only if visitors actually go to the front office to sign in. A number of county schools have layouts that would allow a visitor to easily skirt the main office. 

“If they don’t go through the main office, the same issues that were there before are still there,” Ciarochi said. 

Reported matches to the sex offender database require staff follow-up to check that a match is correct and not in error. Offenders are generally told to leave, and officials contact police, Ciarochi said. 

Generally, visitors who are uncomfortable having their license scanned can work with the administration to figure out another way to prove that they are who they say they are. 

As officials have ordered school renovations, they’ve worked to move school offices to prominent locations out front, he said.

A 2013 task force recommended that experts in using design to prevent crime be included in new school design, said Donna P. Michaelis, manager of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety. 

“However, since most of our schools have been in use for decades, it is necessary to retrofit them in order to reduce opportunities for unauthorized access and allow for access in an emergency situation by first responders,” Michaelis wrote. 

According to Michaelis, approaches to school safety can include “implementing electronic technology to manage access to all school areas, creating a warm and welcoming environment, fostering a sense of physical and social order, creating a sense of ownership by students, maximizing the presence of authority figures, and minimizing opportunities for out-of-sight activities.”

Even with technology, people doing things such as propping doors open can create weaknesses of which school officials have to be aware, Ciarochi said.

In Henrico, visitors are prominently tagged with stickers, in part to make intruders stand out, and signs are used to direct visitors to the office, he said. Teachers are expected to question anyone they find wandering around without a tag, he said. Police officers also are present in county schools, he noted. 

“Staff are the eyes and ears of the campus,” he said.