Keeping Students Safe: Broward County School District Tells How an Electronic Visitor Management System Helps It Keep out Sex Offenders and Others Who Might Endanger Students
Ritter, John R., Fox, Jonathan, Security Management
Crimes against children, such as the 2005 abduction and murder of Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa Springs, Florida, and school shootings, such as the series of attacks that occurred in September and October, including at an Amish schoolhouse, leave no doubt about the importance of safety and security at school facilities. Administrators of Broward County's school district, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, take that responsibility seriously.
"As the sixth-largest district in the nation, we needed to come up with a system that would protect our students and staff," numbering 271,000 and 41,000, respectively, at 264 sites, says Joseph Melita, the executive director of the district's internal police force, called the Special Investigative Unit and Professional Standards (SIU).
With that goal in mind, the district applied for and received two $500,000 grants under the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. Tapping those funds and supplementing them with its own resources from an overall budget of nearly $4.5 billion, the district has established a comprehensive safety and security program.
The cornerstones of the program are prevention (of which a key component is access control and visitor management), emergency preparedness, mitigation, and response. The plan covers safety planning and emergency drills and awareness programs for staff at all schools across multiple functions. To ensure implementation, each school has a Safe Team responsible for safety planning and coordination of emergency response.
Everything is done in collaboration with local police and fire agencies. That's key because the district is served by some 20 law enforcement entities. "We don't want the first time our principals meet police and fire officials to be when they have an incident," says Melita.
The following looks specifically at the visitor management system--dubbed the Security Tracking and Response (STAR) System by the district--which makes it possible for the Broward schools to monitor, identify, and screen all vendor and contractor personnel, volunteers, and others coming into schools.
A protocol for registering and identifying all visitors--including contractors, volunteers, parents, relatives, and family friends--had long been in place at the schools. But under that system, people were tracked via handwritten entries in booklets. Each school had its own booklet where anyone registering would sign in and get some type of badge.
This paper-based approach was woefully inadequate, especially in light of new legal requirements imposed by the state. The district needed functionality for fast background checks of contractors and volunteers to comply with Florida's Jessica Lunsford Act, which was designed to protect school children against sexual predators.
Operating on a restricted budget, Melita initially proposed investing $50,000 in an off-the-shelf visitor management software program offered by various small vendors. It was not network-based and had limited growth potential. However, district Superintendent Frank Till preferred a sustainable, multifaceted solution that could grow with the district's needs.
Education officials also wanted a wide range of other features, including the ability to search local law enforcement databases; customize the system to identify people other than criminals who should be denied entry for specific reasons; and cross-reference students against parents and others authorized to pick up children during the school day. In addition, they wanted to be able to process visitors with a minimum of delay and inconvenience, send instant districtwide messages and alerts, and improve management of volunteers.
"Our unique and most critical need was for a central database able to link all the schools together," says Reginald Browne, prevention coordinator with the district, who wrote the successful applications for the Department of Education grants for the overall safety and prepared ness program. …