Stepping up Protection

March 1, 2006
Improvements in technology enable schools and universities to make campuses safer.

As a school bus comes to a halt on a busy street, the driver swings out the vehicle's stop arm and turns on flashing red lights. Most drivers know what those signals mean — they are required by law to stop their vehicles so that children can safely cross the thoroughfare.

However, many drivers simply choose to ignore the law. Thousands of motorists, impatient or just reckless, have illegally passed a stopped bus and jeopardized the safety of students. Unless the offending driver can be identified, it can be difficult for authorities to make a case.

But that's no longer true in the Liberty (Mo.) school district. The 8,500-student district has equipped its buses with a four-camera system that includes a unit on the stop arm itself.

“Drivers used to be able to say, ‘It wasn't me,’” says Phil Wright, assistant superintendent in Liberty. “But with these cameras, we can identify the license number and the face of the driver. Now when they see it's a Liberty bus, they know they'd better stop.”

The stop-arm cameras are just one example of how schools and universities are taking advantage of technological improvements to provide safer campuses. Innovations such as digital cameras, biometric access-control systems, global positioning systems and radio-frequency ID tags help ensure that campuses are better protected.

Someone is watching

Cameras are a key crime deterrent; a criminal is more likely to get caught if someone is watching. As camera systems become cheaper and more effective, it's more likely that someone or something will be watching.

Digital technology means that video can travel over a school's computer network and be stored on hard drives instead of bulky tapes. Security personnel can access the video they need to see immediately instead of waiting for tapes to rewind.

As prices plummet, schools and universities can buy more cameras. In the past, thieves could spot a camera's coverage area and focus their efforts where cameras couldn't see. But with more cameras, schools eliminate those blind spots. For instance, over last summer, the Pasadena (Texas) Independent School District installed more than 1,000 cameras on 32 campuses, says Bob Daughrity, executive director of technology services.

The stop-arm camera on Liberty buses is another example of eliminating a blind spot. The district had cameras on its buses, but they didn't provide a clear picture of drivers who illegally passed a school bus. The stop-arm cameras provide evidence that is hard to dispute.

Liberty has bolstered its bus security further by installing a microphone on the bus that picks up road noises or conversation that could provide important evidence if an accident occurs. The buses have a kind of “black box” that records data about a bus' speed and when signals are used, which investigators can use to reconstruct an incident. In addition, each bus is equipped with a global positioning system that enables district personnel to monitor whether a bus is running on schedule or whether it has strayed from its route.

Fingering the problem

Access-control systems are commonplace at schools and universities, especially at facilities where sensitive research is performed or valuable equipment is housed. Swipe cards or proximity cards enable schools to keep track of who uses a facility better than systems that use keys.

Still, card systems aren't foolproof; cards can be lost or given to people who don't have clearance to enter a building. Technology has an answer — biometrics. Many schools and universities are using finger-based biometrics systems that scan fingerprint characteristics and convert them to a unique code. Finger scanning often is used at high-security facilities, but as the technology evolves, it also is available in more common settings.

At Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and University of North Texas in Denton, students can sign up for the “iMye” system, which uses finger-scanning to give students access to an account that pays for meals. Students can use the system at on-campus dining facilities or off-campus restaurants.

An eye for an eye

Iris recognition is another access-control technology that schools can use. A human iris is unique, as a fingerprint is, but unlike fingerprinting, iris recognition does not require any physical contact with an individual.

The Freehold Borough (N.J.) district has begun a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) pilot project that uses iris-recognition technology to identify school employees, parents and visitors, and oversee their access to schools.

The system uses a camera to take a close-up image of a person's iris. The images are stored in a database along with contact information, specific access permissions and other data. If an image in the database matches the individual trying to enter, the door unlocks — usually in less than 2 seconds.

The program is voluntary and does not include students at this point; those who aren't participating ring a doorbell and wait to be admitted.

The NIJ conducted a similar pilot project in 2002-03 in the Plumsted Township (N.J.) district. A report prepared for the Justice Department included these findings:

  • School security technologies appear to increase perceptions of security and increase the number of perceived problems.

  • Iris-recognition technology coupled with a buzzer system can be an effective way to control access during school hours if coupled with other less expensive and more mundane measures.



Percentage of 10th-grade students enrolled in schools that used security cameras, 2002.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “An Examination of the Conditions of School Facilities Attended by 10th-Grade Students in 2002.”

Tag my ride

Many college students rely on bicycles to get around campus. One unfortunate byproduct of heavy bicycle use by students is bicycle theft. Students with inadequate locks or who become careless about protecting their bikes end up losing their wheels to thieves.

Police and security officials at many campuses report that bike theft is an ongoing problem.

To help deter theft and return stolen bikes to their owners, Ohio State University, Columbus, offers students radio frequency identification devices (RFID). Through the school's “Bug Your Bike” program, campus safety officers have installed an RFID tag for free on the bicycles of about 700 students. The tag carries data that identifies the owner of the bike.

When officers recover a tagged bike that has been stolen, they can use a device that reads the tag and determine who owns the bike. Since the program began in 2003, bike thefts on campus have declined.

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