School uses high-tech checkpoint for visitors

By MIKE SAVICKI, Charlotte Observer Special Correspondent

The kiosk at Davidson Elementary looks more like a bank ATM than something normally found at a school.

But school officials say the system is helping make students and staff safer.

Last week's school shootings at Virginia Tech is once again bringing increased attention to the issue of school campus safety. The shootings left 33 dead, including the gunman.

In the Lake Norman area, Davidson Elementary started using the electronic system in the fall to track visitors. The system provides a record of everyone on school grounds at all times. The goal is to improve school security, said PTA president Laura Daily.

When a visitor arrives at Davidson Elementary, the person swipes a driver's license or keys personal information on the lobby kiosk. The kiosk then snaps a picture of the visitor and prints a single-use visitor badge that must be worn at all times while on school grounds.

At the same time, the system checks the visitor against national and state sex offender registries and, if the visitor is a match, the office is alerted and staff takes appropriate action to prevent the offender from entering the school.

"The primary concern is always the safety of the students, so I love having the picture ID right on the badge so you can see who each person is at the school and make sure they match," Daily said. "It's a step up in adding a sense of security that was never there before."

The trend to strengthen school safety and security is increasing nationwide, and the focus is on electronics.

In Florida, where the demand for background checks came from school systems themselves, the state passed the Jessica Lunsford Act. The act, commonly known as Jessica's Law, requires schools to screen campus visitors, volunteers and vendors against criminal databases.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has 10 LobbyGuard units in schools and administrative buildings.

The system helps school staff recognize visitors by generating the uniform visitor badge, said Davidson Elementary Principal Celeste Ellis.

The kiosk also features an option that allows the school to build its own database for its children, Ellis said. That could be useful in a divorced family, she said, where one parent isn't authorized to pick up the child.

"The machine allows us to identify the person while still in our office and not after they have checked out the child," she said.

A parent donated the LobbyGuard system to the school, Ellis said. The PTA paid for an add-on feature that allows parents and frequent visitors to swipe their own key tag in front of the machine to log in and out each time they visit. Their information is already stored in the system, Ellis said.

Ellis said it replaces the seemingly endless staff hours devoted to writing out visitor badges and managing logbooks.

"With everything that is happening across the country related to school security," Ellis said, "anything we can do to make our school safer is a welcomed addition."

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