Making Contact

Feb. 1, 2001
Handheld radios help schools extend communication and security to remote areas.

As students were enjoying recess on the playground in the Plano Independent School District, Texas, a suspicious man sitting in a parked Cadillac tried to lure some of the children over to the car.

When the teacher on duty saw what was happening and began to approach the car, the man drove off. That might have been the end of the incident, except that the teacher was carrying a two-way radio. She called back to the school office, and someone immediately called 911.

A few minutes later, the man was in custody.

"He was caught before he got out of the neighborhood," says Ken Bangs, director of police, security and student safety for the Plano district. "Did we dodge a bullet? I believe that we did."

For Bangs, it was more proof that the district's increasing use of radios was paying dividends in safer campuses, and more secure students and staff.

"Having these radios makes a ton of difference," says Bangs.

To enhance safety, schools have been bringing more police or security officers onto school grounds, and have created educational programs to discourage trouble, and make teachers and staff more aware of danger signs. But administrators also are finding that technology can play a vital role in establishing a safer environment for students and staff.

With handheld radios, teachers and other staff members can stay in touch with other school officials from isolated locations such as playgrounds, portable classrooms, athletic fields and off-campus outings.

"Radios are a necessity on school campuses today," says Russell Tedesco, director of security for Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland.


For years, teachers have complained that the lack of phone lines or other two-way communications systems have left their classrooms vulnerable in the event of trouble. But the increasing availability of cell phones and less cumbersome two-way radios has allowed schools to extend their reach and provide greater protection - especially in larger facilities or campuses with numerous buildings.

Administrators with two-way radios can be freed from their desks to mingle with students, sit in on classes, or patrol corridors without feeling cut off from the activity in the main office.

"Our administrators, security teams, the head secretary, building engineers and building supervisors all have radios," says Tedesco. "A teacher who is on recess duty outside is given a radio."

In Plano, a suburban Dallas district with about 48,000 students, every school has several units.

"Every grade level has at least one radio," says Bangs. "It increases the comfort level of the staff. The teachers love them. They feel really secure."

If a student is injured or has a health problem on a playground or an athletic field, a teacher can alert the school office and accelerate the response of police or medical personnel. The radios for the athletic department can be used as phones as well as radios so coaches can summon medical personnel more quickly in case of injuries.

About the only complaint Bangs has heard about the district's two-way radios is their weight. Some employees are more familiar with two-way radios marketed for consumers that are typically lighter than those the schools use.

"They would prefer something lightweight, but we think the heavier, commercial-type units are more durable and dependable," says Bangs.

In Albuquerque Public Schools, an upgrade of a radio system that the district's police force uses has created an opportunity to augment the availability of two-way communication for teachers and staff. The district wants the system and frequencies that the police had been using to be available for use by school staff.

"We are trying to get more radios out to the schools," says Mark Shea, assistant director of the Albuquerque school district's police department.

Administrators, campus security aides and other staff members would have access to a radio system that would have more power and range than a typical low-power two-way radio.

"With this system, if a school has a field trip, the teachers can have a radio that can communicate back to the school," says Shea.

With handheld radios, teachers and other staff members can stay in touch with other school officials from isolated locations such as playgrounds, portable classrooms, athletic fields and off-campus outings.

Sidebar: Giving security a hand

In a time when divorces are common and child-custody arrangements can degenerate into ugly disputes, it is not uncommon for a non-custodial parent to try to pick up a child without permission.

So schools want to make sure that only properly authorized people are taking children home from school. Many schools keep a permission list on file as part of an emergency contact card, but technology may be able to provide a more foolproof solution.

With the help of Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy security lab in Albuquerque, N.M., Albuquerque Public Schools is experimenting with a system that uses hand geometry to identify parents or others authorized to pick up a child.

Mark Shea, assistant director of the Albuquerque Public Schools police department, says the pilot project is being tested at one of the district's elementary schools.

"It's been well-received," says Shea. "Parents want to do anything possible to protect their children."

At school registration at the start of the year, parents, grandparents, babysitters or others authorized to pick up a child place their hands on a pad, and the system measures and records numerous hand features.

When someone comes to the school to retrieve a child, he or she must enter a personal identification number and place their hand on the pad. If the PIN and the hand geometry match the information already held in the system, the person is allowed to pick up the child.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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