Picking up the kids after school can be among the most frustrating, time-consuming parts of a parent’s day. But in October 2002, it became terrifying for many parents in the Washington, D.C., area, as one by one, people became victims of the sniper shootings. That fear prompted one engineer to come up with a high-tech method of speeding up–and securing–the school dismissal process.

“We became concerned with getting everybody out at the same time, and not having any control of who was out there,” said Mark Ruiters, founder of MHR Technologies Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md. Weeks after the arrests of two sniper suspects, Ruiters began developing the Secure Dismiss system.

Schools using the Secure Dismiss program require parents to keep this card in their cars. The card transmits a signal that allows the school to determine which parents have arrived to pick up children. (Associated Press photo)

Within 16 months, Ruiters designed, built, and tested a system that uses radio transponders and receivers to relay information about approaching cars to educators. Last February, the 510-student St. Elizabeth Catholic Elementary School in nearby Rockville, Md., became the Ruiters’ first customer, agreeing to a three-year commitment to set up the system.

“We used to have 400 kids out here, now it’s no more than 30, and they are picked up almost immediately,” said Ruiters. The technology uses a credit-card size device kept in the car and is similar to the security cards many adults use to access their offices.

“We’re synchronizing the pickup so by the time that the parent arrives at the front of the line, we want the child to be there,” said Ruiters, who also has sold the program to another suburban Maryland school and has had inquiries from schools in Dallas, Atlanta, and Connecticut.

The cost per family is less than $100 per year, charged as a transportation fee. MHR maintains ownership of the transponders, software, and other equipment. The information is relayed by a secure computer server to personal computers in each classroom.

Once a car enters the parking lot, it is depicted on a computer screen as a small car bearing the child’s name, which gradually works its way to the top of the screen.

“Their name shows up, and when it gets to three minutes they leave, and when it gets to zero they’re at the door,” said Patricia Farkas, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Elizabeth’s. She was among the staffers who used to spend many afternoons each month walking the sidewalks during the chaos that marked dismissals before the February introduction of the prototype.

Parents sitting in offices miles away can use their desktop computer to see when the car pool picking up their child disappears from the database, indicating the car has left school grounds.

The school’s dismissal process “used to involve the parents arriving as early as 2:15 to get a prominent place in the queue,” said Cheryl Murzyn, principal at St. Elizabeth’s. Although Murzyn would have about a quarter of her 41 staffers assisting with dismissal, controlling so many students around so many vehicles was difficult.

“It was a safety situation that we thought we could improve,” said Murzyn. The system has reduced the dismissal period to 30 minutes or less, instead of the 1 hour 15 minutes it used to take–and only four staffers are now needed, she said.

“The kids know exactly where to find the parent,” said Terri Muldoon, the mother of a third-grade student. According to Muldoon, the constant trickle of students who quickly place backpacks in car trunks and then pile into passenger seats is much better.

“During the sniper situation, it became a bad choice to have all the kids out here,” recalled Gregory Papillo, the father of three students. Throughout the sniper ordeal, four to six large SUVs were parked near one entrance to form a steel and fiberglass screen for the exiting students.

By the time of the arrests, school staffers developed a system of using two-way radios to relay information about individual car pools to a secretary in the office, who would announce departure information on the public address system.

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