Marshalltown school board approves new facial recognition system

T-R PHOTO BY LANA BRADSTREAM Marshalltown Community School District Director of Technology Amy Harmsen explains a new security system, Visitor Aware SingleWire, to board members during Tuesday’s meeting. The system will be installed to make sure people of concern, such as sexual offenders, do not gain access to school buildings.

Before they gain physical entry, visitors of Marshalltown Community School District buildings will have to be approved by a new program.

It is an additional form of security for students and staff and was approved by the Marshalltown Community School Board during the regular meeting on Tuesday. Board members voted to purchase the Visitor Aware SingleWire system, a facial recognition program, and the $22,506.25 funding for the program will be provided by the Iowa Safety Grant.

Director of Technology Amy Harmsen told the board they may have seen it in other districts and federal buildings.

“[Visitors] will need to go through a process to actually go and wander about the building or go to a specific room,” she said.

Harmsen said it is something that has been vetted for some time, and demos were conducted by district personnel including herself and Andrew Claseman, the district network security specialist.

For the system, a visitor must swipe an identification card on an iPad connected to the program. The system will scan the barcode on the back of the government-issued card. People without an identity card will need to type in their information. Harmsen said there are a lot of fields that have to be filled out, and there are different languages that can be utilized. The program also uses facial recognition. Afterward, the building secretary has to approve the visitor’s entry.

“This is something we suggest would happen at every building,” she said. “This was something from the security assessment that was found lacking in our buildings. We do have a visitor process right now. It’s not as though it’s not there at all, but this would streamline things more.”

The program will improve communication throughout the building and let staff know a visitor, volunteer or vendor is present

“This is one we thought was the quickest, slickest system out there,” Harmsen said. “We did vet a number of them. This kept coming to the top.”

Board member Karina Hernandez asked if students would need to use the system. Harmsen told her they would be exempt.

Board member Sara Faltys said she was supportive of it and had seen such a system at Emerson. She asked if it was going to be a lot of work for receptionists, especially during times when multiple people are trying to gain entry, such as during Junior Achievement.

Harmsen told her when it comes to events where there will be multiple people, they can go through the system beforehand.

“They can be completely vetted and either have a QR code or we can print out badges,” she said.

Harmsen told Faltys there will be learning involved to mitigate such situations. In January, she wants to implement the system in a couple school district buildings. The plan is to work through the pinpoints with those receptionists, get their feedback and see what improvements need to be made.

Board member Zach Wahl said the system sort of makes him cringe because he thinks of the TSA.

“Obviously, this is the world we live in,” he said.

Wahl asked about people who forget their identification, or do not have any. Harmsen said an ID is not necessary, but it is the smoothest process. By scanning their card, pushing the button and getting approved, it can take less than 20 seconds, she said.

Wahl asked about going back to school when hundreds of parents will try to access each building. Harmsen said they will implement processes for those days to prevent a bottleneck effect.

“For that, we’re just going to be vigilant like we already are, and welcome those visitors in,” she said.

Harmsen said it is possible to set up mass check-ins which should not result in long lines. She is confident the process will get quicker and more efficient as staff become familiar with the system.

“It’s not just for the worst case,” Harmsen said. “It’s also for a tornado drill, if there’s a fire, even if there are custody issues. It’s not just a worst case scenario.”

Wahl then asked what the protocol is if someone gets flagged by the system. Part of the system uses Informacast, in which the administrator of the school building gets a text or email saying someone has called 911.

“We’ve already had issues like that where somebody who is a known sex offender or somebody has a known custody issue,” Harmsen said. “We’ve already had to deal with those and we leave them up to the administrator of the building to deal with that.”

Superintendent Therson Schutte said the board members were asking good questions.

“I think the system has come a long way in terms of user friendliness,” he said. “It was probably the number one recommendation from the TetraTech security safety audit.”

Schutte said it will ultimately give the front office personnel a greater sense of security.

Board member Leah Stanley asked if a facial recognition database will be used. Harmsen told her a number of databases would get checked, and it would be mostly criminal background scans conducted. The only things she said they are worried about are sexual offenders, dangerous offenders, custody issues.

“It’s the least intrusive facial recognition as can be,” she said.

In other business, the school board:

Heard a presentation on the new “Embrace the Lead” video from Communications Director Abby Koch, Arts & Culture Alliance Director Amber Danielson and video creator Akwi Nji. They also watched the video, which was also shown at multiple opportunities during the week.

Approved the design of the Career and Technical Education wing of the Marshalltown High School. The design is by FEH Design and has a project cost of $11 million.

Contact Lana Bradstream at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or lbradstream@timesrepublican.com.


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