School screening gets screened

Published February 15, 2007

INVERNESS - Just like a guy with a new tool or a kid with a new toy, Citrus school officials are finding myriad uses for their new visitor screening system.

Not only does it identify sexual offenders entering a school - which it did in one case last week - but it has other uses, too.

The screening system known as Raptor also spits out information about a person's child custody situation and restraining orders.

It also serves as a handy way for principals to know the comings and goings of volunteers and staff as well as visitors. In an emergency, it can show exactly who is in a school at any point in time.

School Board members asked this week whether, perhaps, the system wasn't being overused, or whether it was giving parents a false sense that every person ever on a campus had faced the screening process.

Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel said there has been plenty of discussion since the systems became operational across the district several weeks ago.

Some schools have heard from sexual offenders who need access because their own children attend school there. Parents have called to say they don't want any sexual offenders in schools where their children are.

Since Raptor was implemented, Himmel has said that every person coming to visit a school should be screened by the program. School personnel scan the person's driver's license; if there is no problem, the visitor is given a photo identification badge and allowed in. When the visitor leaves, that badge is returned.

If a problem does crop up in the screening, school resource officers and school administrators are notified.

Board member Pat Deutschman said during Tuesday's board meeting that some line needs to be drawn as far as the screening process.

"I'm a little uncomfortable screening every single person who comes in," she said.

The screening was being used even for Tuesday's board meeting. Some people attending the open board session were told to provide a driver's license to get a badge to be in the district office for the board meeting.

After questions about that process arose at the meeting, Himmel on Wednesday asked for the screening process to be set aside at the district office, for now.

School Board members also asked what to do about access to schools after hours, when no one is on hand to do any screening. Himmel said it could never be done for most sporting events.

"Parents may assume that we have these safeguards in place" at all times, said board member Lou Miele. "They need to know that we don't."

"We're responsible for kids during the school day," Himmel said.

But Deutschman said the board may need to take a wider view since the district still bears responsibility for children at after-school events as well.

"I don't think at 3 o'clock all bets are off," she said.

"That's the hard part of figuring this all out," Deutschman said on Wednesday. The Jessica Lunsford Act, which requires screening at schools, was created to keep sexual offenders off campuses. She said everyone knows that needs to happen.

"But how do you do that without going too far in the opposite direction?" Deutschman asked. "Just because we can do these things, it doesn't mean we should."

She said that schools should be able to use common sense and judgment in determining whom to screen, and when, but using the technology to do everything the technology can do to every person entering a school campus was overkill.

"That is taking this thing way out of context from what the reason was for it in the first place, trying to keep sexual offenders off school campuses," she said.

Since the Raptor equipment arrived in schools, "it has raised enough flags to say that we have to go back and revise these procedures," said Mike Mullen, executive director of support services.

For example, the system provides a convenient and quick way to log in when parents pick children up from school, even though these are parents who might not need to be screened for access.

School maintenance workers, who all have a background check before becoming school district employees, are screened at some schools to keep track of when they are in a school and when they leave.

"It does 101 things, but the question is, do we need to be doing 101 things with it," Mullen said.

He said administrators will collect information from the schools' experiences with the equipment and bring that back for future board discussion.

"Sometimes you just get ahead of yourself," he said. "At least if we erred, we erred on the side of safety with the kids."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.