With conditions, Lawrence school board approves buying software to check building visitors’ backgrounds

photo by: Dylan Lysen

School board member Jill Fincher, right, explains to why she won't support the purchase of a school building visitor software program during the board's meeting on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. Fincher and Jessica Beeson, left, said they have concerns with the program's search of the national sex offender registry.

Schools in Lawrence may soon begin using software to conduct background checks on visitors to their buildings, but the Lawrence school board won’t allow it to be implemented districtwide until some conditions are met.

With a 5-2 vote, the board approved the purchase of a visitor management software and related accessories from Hall Pass School Visitor Management for $69,000. The purchase is funded by a capital outlay grant the school district received from the state.

Ron May, the district’s director of facilities and operations, said the software performs the checks on all visitors to a school building. The search requires a visitor to provide a government-issued identification card, such as a driver’s license, and it checks if they are on the national sex offender registry or if they have a “no contact order” on a student in the building.

While the software would flag visitors that appear on those lists, that would not necessarily prohibit them for entering the school, May said. The district would need to create a set of policies on what the schools would allow those visitors to do in the building and if they would need to be shadowed by a school official, among other possible policies.

Additionally, the program provides name tags for visitors that show where they are permitted to be in the building, May said.

Before approving the purchase, the board added conditions to the implementation of the program, including the district crafting a rollout plan — which would include a pilot program during the spring semester — to create protocols and policies surrounding the use of the software and providing training to school staff.

If those conditions are met, the board will consider expanding it to the rest of the school district next school year.

However, even with the added conditions, board members Jessica Beeson and Jill Fincher voted against the purchase because of concerns with the national sex offender registry.

Beeson said her main concern is that the registry is not equitable nationwide and can also be biased toward people of color. She also reiterated some people who are victims of abuse — such as victims of sex trafficking — will take a fall for their abuser, and that could be put on the sex offender registry. She originally mentioned that concern during the Oct. 14 meeting when the board first considered the purchase.

“I’m struggling with this being a necessary thing that we have in our buildings,” she said at the time.

Fincher echoed Beeson’s concerns.

“I’m all for school safety, I’m just a little uncomfortable with the inequity issue,” Fincher said. “Parents who have previous transgressions who have served their time trying to be an active participant in their child’s lives, I just see that as a barrier. … I’m not comfortable with that barrier.”

Other board members said they understood Beeson’s concerns, but they were persuaded to make the purchase with the assurance that those issues may be addressed with the added conditions. The board will have the opportunity to consider the issues before implementing the software districtwide.

Board member Rick Ingram said he felt the district could craft policies that allow the schools to work with visitors who are flagged on the check.

“I understand the sex offender registry is problematic, but there are people who absolutely belong on that (list),” he said. “(I’m) recognizing not everybody on that list belongs on that list, but if it’s a question of keeping some people out of the building and some other people will need some extended conversations to see what’s going on, I guess I’m OK with that.”

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