Several years ago, the State University of New York (SUNY) Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome turned to technology to bolster security on campus. Instead of using keys, students living in the university's residence halls received a personal identification number that they punched onto a keypad to gain access to the building. That way, only authorized students and staff could get into the facility.
But a security system is only as strong as its weakest link. At SUNY Utica/Rome, that weak link was the student body.
"When someone came to visit, students would be reluctant to come downstairs to open the door, so they would just yell their PIN number out the window," says Lt. Jeff Jecko of the university's police department.
From a security standpoint, that was the equivalent of hanging a key on the front of the building with a sign reading, "Intruders Welcome."
So, the university replaced the keypad system. Like many campuses across the nation, SUNY Utica/Rome has installed a swipe-card access-control system for its residence halls and other campus buildings.
"It allows us to better monitor all the activity on campus," says Jecko.
Access-control cards are just one way colleges and universities are using technology to enhance the safety of students and staff. Schools also are relying on closed-circuit video systems, emergency phone kiosks, and multifunctional "smart cards" to prevent and discourage campus crime.
Smarter cards, safer students More schools are replacing their identification cards with technologically enhanced cards that include not only a photo identification and student number, but also the capacity to make purchases, conduct bank transactions, hold student records, and provide access to residence halls, classrooms and other school facilities.
"The one-card system is the fastest growing segment of the campus card market," says Lyn White, executive director of the National Association of Campus Card Users.
Schools removed from urban centers, such as SUNY Utica/Rome, or right in the middle of an urban center, such as Cleveland State University, each have found that card systems have provided their campuses with a greater feeling of security.
In addition to allowing those possessing a card to enter certain campus buildings, access-card systems allow university officials to monitor a particular trouble spot on campus or an individual student or employee's movements. If the system shows one student's card gaining access to an area with unusual frequency, authorities can check to see if the card has been stolen or if the student is lending it to people who are not authorized to be in a particular area.
When an incident occurs within an area controlled by access cards, university police can check computer files and determine which students were in the area in question.
"We had a situation where there was damage done in one of the laundry rooms," says SUNY's Jecko. "We went back to determine who was in there during that timeframe and were able to narrow down who might have done it."
The access-control system also detects when a door has been kept open more than a few minutes and alerts police to a possible problem.
Cleveland State University introduced a one-card system about a year ago called the Vikingcard. Initially, the card handles financial transactions, such as dining hall and bookstore purchases, and tracks individual student information. Eventually, the system also will control and monitor access into campus buildings.
"We have a lot of older buildings on campus, and we have to retrofit the wiring," says Patti Hupcey, manager of the card system.
Even when used just for financial transactions, a card can improve security. Hupcey says since students have been able to use the debit-account function of their cards on vending machines, the machines aren't as enticing to would-be thieves.
"We haven't had to replace a vending machine since we began using the cards," says Hupcey. "There has been almost no vandalism."
Using the card for purchases also means students and staff don't have to carry large amounts of money. "We're in the middle of downtown Cleveland, and people like the fact that you don't have to carry cash to use the vending machines and concessions."
Eventually, Cleveland State hopes to bring off-campus businesses, long-distance carriers, student parking and the public transportation system onto the Vikingcard system.
Blue-light specials While colleges and universities continue to integrate the latest technologies into their security plans, they also still rely on more conventional but proven means of keeping campuses safe.
Emergency phones are a common site on many campuses. At SUNY Utica/Rome, about 30 such phones, identified by an attention-getting blue light, are scattered throughout the university. The phones connect directly to the campus police dispatchers.
"The phones are there for people who have no other way of getting hold of us," says Jecko. "We try to position them so that wherever you are on campus, one of the blue lights is in your eyesight."
Brighter lighting, such as high-intensity sodium vapor lamps, also enhances campus security at many schools.
In addition, a number of schools use volunteer escort services so students or staff don't have to travel across campus alone, and supplement their police presence with bike patrols that are able to get to places on a campus that a patrol car cannot.
Life on videotape Because colleges and universities often cover a vast area, many schools use security cameras to keep an eye on places prone to trouble. Jecko says that SUNY Utica/Rome has cameras monitoring some 20 areas on campus-computer rooms, hallways, lobbies and parking lots.
"We have the monitors stacked up in our dispatch center," says Jecko. "On some of them we can zoom in and out if we need to view something more clearly."