A Tough Lesson to Learn

The Jessica Lunsford Act pushes schools to improve access-control policies

As the public becomes increasingly aware of school security and its shortcomings, those in the security industry are acknowledging the value of new products and innovations in the field.

One group that knows how important controlling access to schools has become is the Broward County Public School District in south Florida. The district includes Ft. Lauderdale and its surrounding communities, and with approximately 263,000 students and 273 schools, it is the sixth largest in the nation.

Jessica's Legacy
School security is an especially hot topic in Florida, where new and controversial legislation is helping schools crack down on criminals. The Jessica Lunsford Act, passed in Florida in May 2005, calls for better tracking of convicted sex offenders who have been released. One of the act’s main requirements is stricter screening procedures for adults who come in contact with children in Florida schools.

The act, which has been adopted by several other states, is named after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from Homosassa, Fla., who was sexually assaulted and murdered by known sexual predator John Couey in February 2005. Following Jessica’s death, her father, Mark Lunsford, campaigned for legislation to place tighter restrictions on convicted sex offenders. In order to comply with the act, the Broward schools have begun using the STAR program— Security Tracking and Response—from Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls as a visitor management system. STAR authenticates a visitor’s government-issued ID as soon as he or she enters a school. Identity is confirmed, and the system collects and stores the visitor’s information.

Next, the software screens the visitor against public and private databases, including the National Sex Offender Public Registry, clerk of courts databases and internal watch lists, searching for registered sex offenders or other types of criminals. After the screen, the system either recommends or denies access. Finally, the system generates a temporary badge that features the visitor’s photograph, making it easy to identify each guest.

With the current volatile climate that persists in many U.S. schools, the importance of screening visitors cannot be underplayed.

“Being able to integrate between public and private databases is key,” said Paige Tarver, account executive of major projects for Johnson Controls. “Clearly, schools are no longer islands of safety.”

Layers of Protection
Dr. Joseph Melita, executive director of the Broward County Public Schools’ police division, said the school district used to simply make visitors sign in—with little, if any, scrutiny.

“IDs were not a norm, and controlled access was not in place,” he said. “There was no feedback as to who was allowed on the grounds.”

With the new system, school officials have much greater control over and knowledge of visitors. Melita said although there are no guarantees that such a system can prevent everything, now the public knows they will be challenged when they visit a Broward school.

“It is our mission that students and staff will teach and learn in a safe environment,” he said. “STAR is yet another layer of being proactive ... hopefully it will discourage those who have no reason to be on our campuses to come into our sites.”

In fact, the STAR system is already doing that and more. Melita said in one recent week the district saw four “deny entry” hits and continues to get about one a week.

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