- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

Picking up the children 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 area as, one by one, people became victims of the sniper shootings, including one child.

That fear prompted an engineer to come up with a high-tech method of speeding up 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.

After the arrests of the two sniper suspects, Mr. Ruiters began developing the Secure Dismiss system.

Within 16 months, he designed, built and tested a system that uses radio transponders and receivers to relay information about approaching cars to classrooms at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Elementary School in Rockville.

“We used to have 400 kids out here. Now, it’s no more than 30, and they are picked up almost immediately,” Mr. Ruiters said.

The technology uses a credit card-size device kept in the car. It’s 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,” Mr. Ruiters said.

He 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, which is charged as a transportation fee. MHR maintains ownership of the transponders, software and other equipment. A secure computer server relays the information 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.

She was among the staffers who used to spend many afternoons each month walking the sidewalks during the chaos that marked the end of the school day.

A parent sitting in an office miles away can use a desktop computer to see when the car pool picking up a child disappears from the database, indicating that the car has left school grounds.

“It 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 Miss 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,” Miss Murzyn said.

The system has reduced the dismissal period to 30 minutes or less, instead of the hour and 15 minutes it used to take. Only four staffers are needed.

“The kids know exactly where to find the parent,” said Terri Muldoon, the mother of a third-grader.

“During the sniper situation, it became a bad choice to have all the kids out here,” said Gregory Papillo, the father of three students.

Throughout the sniper ordeal, four to six large sport-utility vehicles were parked near one entrance to form a screen for 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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