The increasing presence of new technology has put schools firmly on the criminal map. George Cole discovers a range of security options schools can employ to protect themselves
Schools have always been prime targets for thieves, thanks to the array of audio, video and ICT equipment that lies within their walls. In the past couple of years, the problem of theft from schools has been exacerbated by the influx of data projectors, largely as a result of the government's multi-million pound initiative to put more interactive whiteboards into schools. Data projectors are near the top of the criminals' list because like other items (such as laptop computers, PDAs and mobile phones) they are known in the security business as Craved - concealable, removable, available, valuable and enjoyable.
The typical data projector thief is a young male, and detective inspector Sean Crotty of Havering Police says many projectors end up in homes: "It used to be that they were sold on to pubs for watching football matches, but now most are in households and used for watching DVDs, computer games and sports events. Stolen projectors used to be sold in car boot sales, but many of them now end up on eBay." Projector theft tends to increase as major sporting events approach and with the World Cup set to kick off this summer, the police are braced for a rise in this type of crime.
There are around 250,000 projectors in schools, with another 500,000 or so expected to be installed over the next few years. The burglary rate on data projectors is around 10 per cent, although in some areas it can be as high as 30 per cent. Between January and March 2005, there were almost 200 school burglaries involving data projectors from schools in London alone, and with the average data projector costing around pound;1,500, it's easy to see why they are such a hot target for thieves. But it isn't just the loss of an expensive device that is the problem; thieves often leave a trail of damage behind as the projector is pulled from its moorings (most hang from a ceiling); there's the added cost of inflated insurance premiums, and last but not least, there is a human cost as students and teachers are deprived of a valuable teaching resource (see page 23).
"It's unusual for schools to be ahead of the game when it comes to new gadgets, but they certainly are with projectors," says Penny Patterson, general ICT inspector at the London Borough of Havering. Such is the problem of projector theft that last May, technology agency Becta hosted a meeting on data projector security that included representatives from the Home Office, police, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), local education authorites (LEAs) and projector manufacturers, with the view of devising strategies for reducing theft.
Today, an array of security products and anti-theft programmes are being rolled out across schools and LEAs, and new technologies, such as sophisticated security marking and tagging devices are increasingly being used. And manufacturers are developing new features and new projectors that are designed to make them harder to steal or sell on.
Most projectors are already equipped with security features built-in, but Martin Parry, RM's business manager, notes that schools don't always use them: "For example, you can password-protect many projectors or set up the splash screen (the first thing you see when the projector is switched on) to display the name of the school so it's clear who the projector belongs to. Schools could also fit a Kensington lock (a cable lock) or a cage around the projector. That said, manufacturers and suppliers could do more and we have a number of things under development."
But many schools and LEAs have launched aggressive anti-theft campaigns to deter data projector thieves. Last year, the London Borough of Havering worked with local police on a data projector security campaign that included the use of high-tech marking systems, SmartWater and Selectamark (see right). Both systems make it easier to identify school property and trace it back to the original owner.
"The police were brilliant, and they've gone into schools to talk to site staff and students about security," says Penny Patterson. "Another strategy was to let the public know that school property like projectors and computers were now marked. We had a big launch and went to Romford market with the crime prevention unit to spread the word. We gave out pens and wristbands advertising the fact that our projectors were now protected with SmartWater and Selectamark and we're looking to improve the signing on the outside of our schools to warn thieves that we have this new level of security."
The strategy seems to have worked, because when one school was recently broken into, the thieves left behind all of the security marked equipment and simply took a clapped-out, old Amstrad word processor.
Darlington Borough Council has worked with the local police force to protect the data projectors in the Borough's 44 primary and secondary schools. "In 20034, we had 38 insurance claims for school thefts and in 20045, this rose to 82. We knew we had to do something about it," notes George Cornforth, the council's risk and insurance manager. The borough's Crime Reduction Management group decided to buy SmartWater kits for all of its schools.
The Council's insurance company Zurich Municipal, also provided useful advice, including a strategy of publicising the new security measures in the local press and radio. Since the campaign began, school break-ins have fallen to 23 and around 15 of these have taken place in three schools that are in high-risk areas.
These schools now have added protection in the form of sonic alarms (high volume alarms) and tracking devices concealed within some equipment. "The early indications are that the programme has been successful in reducing crime, and the spin-off has been a greater awareness of security within schools" says Cornforth.
What manufacturers are doing Data projector manufacturers and suppliers have been galvanised to launch new products with additional security features. Leading the pack is Sahara, which has produced The Protector (pound;899), a data projector that comes in a bright orange colour that is unique to education products (review p26). It also uses a protection system which involves removing a panel after the initial set-up.
If The Protector's power source is switched off or if it is unplugged from the mains, it cannot be operated until the panel is replaced. If the thief acquires another panel, the projector will still not work, because each panel is uniquely assigned to a specific projector. The projector also has a splash screen which displays the name of the rightful owner, and which can only be changed by Sahara. "There are optional extras, such as a motion sensor alarm which is activated if the projector is moved and a thick security cable that takes around half an hour to cut through," says Julie Squires, Sahara's general manager.
Hitachi's latest projectors include a PIN code security system, personalised start-up screen and an anti-theft security bar that provides a strong anchor point for a chain or cable. Hitachi also supplies new an improved anti-theft deterrent stickers, which can be retrospectively fitted to older Hitachi projectors. Promethean now offers the Sanyo XE30 projector that includes PIN code protection and a built-in alarm. Martin Parry, RM's business manager says RM plans to introduce new security features on the projectors supplied with its interactive whiteboards, including pre-installed password protection and splash screen.
Becta is working with the Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB), part of the Building Research Establishment to develop standards for data projectors and associated technologies. Richard Flint, a member of the LPCB team, says: "We're currently writing standards and testing security features and, in time, we'll have a standard for projectors."
* More security features in Web Extras at www.tes.co.ukonline
The human cost
Behind every projector theft is a victim and in the case of schools that means staff and pupils. At the very least is the damage caused by the theft. "A lot of projectors are ceiling mounted and they're often ripped out, leaving lots of damage behind. It often brings great disruption to the school," notes George Cornfall, Darlington Council's risk and insurance manager.
"Children get so disillusioned when something like this happens," says Penny Patterson, Havering's general inspector for ICT. "The sparkle and enjoyment goes and sometimes you never get that back. Why should children be deprived of their education just so someone can enjoy watching football?"
A headteacher from a London primary school explains the impact of projector theft on his school. Over a three-week period, the school had 12 of its 17 projectors stolen - in one raid, four projectors were taken.
"I think the children were basically angry and annoyed that someone had come into their school and violated it," reports the headteacher.
"The effect on the staff was devastating. We had some reluctant teachers who were just getting used to using interactive whiteboards in their lessons when the projectors went. It was almost three weeks before we got replacements, so a lot of the teaching had to be changed. There's a lot of hassle involved with insurance forms to fill in and so on. There was also an excess of pound;250 to be paid on each incident."
Since the last round of thefts, the school has beefed up its security, using sonic alarms, CCTV, security brackets and security marking.
Does that projector belong to you? The Selectamark system makes it easy to answer this question. It's an overt security marking system being used in many schools around the UK. Selectamark uses stencils, which contain a school's name and postcode. These details can be attached to a projector and are virtually impossible to remove.
"The name is there, it's very visible and anybody can see who it belongs to," says Linda Kindall, Selectamark's sales manager. It costs around pound;75 to protect 100 items with Selectamark - less than pound;1 per item - and thousands of stencils have been issued to schools in areas such as Derbyshire, Dorset and Dudley.
If locks, alarms and other devices don't deter thieves, then the difficulty of disposing of the projector or the risk of being identified with stolen property could make them think twice. This is the idea behind SmartWater.
"One of the most frustrating aspects of the job is finding someone with stolen equipment and not being able to prove it's stolen because you can't trace the rightful owner," says DI Sean Crotty of Havering Police. "Even worse, you have to hand back the property to the thief." That is why Havering Police is a big supporter of SmartWater. SmartWater is a water-based solution with a unique forensic code. SmartWater shows up under ultraviolet light. When an institution uses SmartWater, their details are stored on a highly secure database (which uses the same level of security as M15, says its manufacturers), and so allows any property to be traced back to its rightful owner.
A SmartWater kit consists of a small bottle of SmartWater tracer solution, applicator and warning labels and stickers. The product is sold under a licensing scheme, and a medium-sized kit (recommended for large primary schools or average-sized secondary schools) can be used to protect around 400 items. It costs pound;225 ex-VAT per year. A larger version, which SmartWater suggests could be used by a large secondary school, costs pound;450 per year and can protect around 1,000 items. Users simply paint the SmartWater on to an item and it hardens to a varnish-like finish.