When a primary school in Liverpool got new interactive whiteboards and data projectors, it not only opened up new teaching horizons, but soon attracted the attention of a local thief, who duly stole all the school's projectors.
"We know who took them, although we obviously can't prove it. And what's more, a couple of months after the theft, I found him on the school premises one afternoon, obviously on the look-out for our replacement projectors," says the headmaster.
During the past couple of years, data projectors have become the number one target for thieves who sneak into schools to steal ICT equipment. "I've never known anything like it, and I've worked in computer security for 10 years," says Les Duce, managing director of Computer Securities. "One local education authority in the north west of England lost 130 projectors in three months - it's a problem of epidemic proportions."
Udo Scherpe, marketing manager of Dalen, which markets computer security equipment under the name of Top-Tec, adds: "Within the last two years, projector security has overtaken computer security in our line of business." A typical school data projector costs between pound;500 and pound;1,000, but Duce explains that stealing just one of these gadgets is often not enough for the thieves. "After a while, the projector bulb runs down and when the thief discovers it costs a whoppingpound;350 to replace, he goes out and steals another projector."
Scherpe explains why data projectors have become such a hot item for school thieves. "They're small and portable, so are easy to transport in a rucksack or small bag. They're quite expensive to buy and can be used to connect to hardware such as PlayStations, DVD players and computers in order to enjoy the fashionable home cinema experience."
In fact, many put the trend for big-screen entertainment at home as the root cause of the problem. "The upsurge of data projector thefts increased quite considerably during the World Cup, and we think that some dubious hostelries may also be a market for stolen projectors," says Az Mohammed, manager of Newcastle University's information systems and services.
Mohammed also runs the Lecture Theatre Services Managers Group (LTSMG) for the higher education sector. Its website lists many dozens of stolen projectors from Higher Education (HE) institutions. The experience of the HE sector could soon be repeated in schools, now that more and more data projectors are going into classrooms.
At this year's BETT technology show, the education secretary announced that pound;25 million would be available for schools to buy interactive whiteboards. The previous year, an additional pound;25 million had been pledged by the schools minister. The Prime Minister's last conference speech talked about every school being equipped with interactive whiteboards. Other initiatives are putting more data projectors into schools. For example, RM is installing interactive whiteboards in 146 classrooms in 30 primary schools for Newham LEA under a pound;20 million PFI project.
Although the Department for Education and Skills initiative covers the purchase of both boards and projectors, it does not include security equipment, so schools and LEAs are going to have to take steps to protect their investment.
The problem with most data projectors is that they can't be locked away in a cupboard. Many are fixed to the classroom ceiling and so are on permanent public view. But there are a number of things schools can do to deter thieves. Scherpe believes schools should think twice about advertising the fact that they have lots of ICT equipment in their classrooms. "A lot of problems stem from the fact that a local newspaper reports how a school has just acquired a whole batch of exciting new high-tech equipment. And it's very tempting on parents' evenings to show off all your computers."
"If you're going to try and make your projector secure, then you should do it properly," says Duce, "You are never going to stop the determined thief, but you can deter the opportunist. Our motto is: 'sod off, it's easier next door'. What you're trying to do is to make it as difficult as possible to steal projectors."
Most projectors hang from a pole from the ceiling and Martin Coxon, sales director of Roche AV, which does many school installations, describes how determined thieves can be: "It's not unknown for thieves to cut through the poles or even pull them from the ceiling, bringing half of it down with them."
Basic precautions include locking classroom doors when not in use or investing in blinds or curtains to keep the projector out of sight. Many projectors come with a PIN code, which is needed to operate them. Although this obviously doesn't stop someone from physically removing the projector, a prominent sign informing people that the projector is PIN-protected might prove to be a deterrent for some thieves.
"You can put metal cages around the projector, but it doesn't stop someone from simply cutting the pole," continues Mohammed. Securing projectors with cables or brackets can help, as can reinforcing the pole or installing it behind a lockable plate.
One of the most popular anti-theft devices is the sonic alarm. This is a small box that is super-glued to the projector and connected to an electrical circuit via a looped cable. If the projector is removed, the cable is detached, the circuit is broken and the alarm emits a piercing noise that can last for up to two hours. The alarm can only be disabled with a special key and the racket will probably cause most would-be thieves to leave the projector and make a run for it.
Roche Audio Visual www.rocheav.co.uk