Who are You?

Dec. 1, 2006
Once upon a time, there was a school where all the teachers knew all the students by name. All the students knew their class schedules and arrived for

Once upon a time, there was a school where all the teachers knew all the students by name. All the students knew their class schedules and arrived for each session long before the tardy bell rang. Students and staff never strayed into areas where they were not authorized to go, and visitors didn't think of coming onto campus without permission.

In that fairy tale existence, schools and universities would not need an identification system to monitor who is coming onto their campuses and ensure that students are where they are supposed to be. But in the real world, many schools and universities are too large for the staff to know every student and employee, let alone spot a visitor or intruder.

A good initial step in bolstering school safety is to seek out the help of an ID system.

Pick a card

Most ID systems require students to carry cards that have information about the student stored on them. The card systems employ different technologies and have different capabilities. “Mag stripe” cards have magnetic strips, and the system can retrieve data from them when users swipe their cards through a reader. Proximity cards do not have to make contact with a reading device; the system can retrieve information when a user places a card near the reader (usually a few inches). Newer proximity cards may use Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

So-called “smart cards” have one or more embedded computer chips that carry information about the user. Some smart cards require contact with a reader; others do not. In some cases, a card may use more than one technology — both a mag stripe and a computer chip.

On North American campuses, “It seems the mag stripe is winning,” says Kathleen Kelly, campus card manager at Carleton College in Ottawa, Ont., and chair of the board of directors for the National Association of Campus Card Users.

As a method of access control, cards are superior to keys because if they are lost they can be deactivated immediately and replaced promptly. Cards also allow a user's profile to be altered to change where and when access is allowed.

As technology progresses, schools have been able to place more functions onto a card, and many campuses are using “one-card” systems. Instead of having separate cards for student identification, library borrowing, use of a recreation center, and access to a residence hall or a science lab, information to enable all of those functions is stored on one plastic card.

In some cases, a college department is reluctant to relinquish control of its system and has a card-access system separate from a university's overall system, but Kelly says the trend is for colleges to streamline their systems.

“People are amalgamating into one-card systems,” she says. “When parts of a campus are not fully integrated into a card system, a school can't take advantage of the efficiencies of a one-card system.”

If there is a point at which a card becomes unmanageable because it has too many functions, it hasn't reached it yet.

“They are still growing in popularity,” says Kelly.

On a college campus, cards can be programmed to provide access to residence halls, academic buildings and recreational facilities; keep track of meal plans; serve as library cards; and be used as a debit card for on-campus spending. Many schools enter into agreements with off-campus merchants to allow students to use their campus cards for purchases.

Technology also provides ways for campuses to set up ID systems without cards. Biometric systems can identify users through finger, hand or iris recognition. Kelly says that biometric systems often are used at recreation facilities on a college campus.

Going mobile

For the information on ID cards to be read, the cards have to have access to a card reader. If the card can't come to the reader, the reader can come to the card. That's what happened in the Phoenix Union High School District. Administrators working to cut down on students' ditching classes or arriving late use handheld mobile readers to sweep through a school and find students who aren't in class.

“The tardy rates have gone down at the campuses that have done sweeps,” says Don Fournier, student information specialist with the Phoenix district.

The devices scan a student's ID and call up the student's photo, schedule and personal information. For students who say they don't have their IDs, the device can retrieve student data by entering an ID number.

Before the schools began using the handheld device, students who were late for classes were brought to a central point for processing. The sweeps enable school officials to issue tardy slips on the spot, and students are on their way to class more quickly.

Easy access to a student's personal information, including emergency contact numbers, can be critical if a student is injured at school.

The student ID cards also carry information about lunch accounts and bus fare expenses on the area's public transit system.

In the future, Fournier says, students may have ID cards with RFID chips that record their attendance as they enter a classroom.

“You could tell very quickly where a student is,” he says.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Touching on a solution

Student identification cards have helped smooth operations at many schools. They can expedite borrowing a book from the library or paying for lunch in the cafeteria.

But in many cases, the weak link in the chain is the student. If he or she forgets an ID at home, the time savings the card would have provided are quickly lost. A student lending an ID to a friend could lead to bureaucratic snags or security breaches.

One solution is a system that guarantees that students will always have their ID with them. Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield, S.C., has found such a system — it uses finger-based biometric identification.

“You can't give away your finger,” says Greg Thompson, school principal.

The system is used in the lunchroom, and without students' searching for their misplaced IDs or workers having to enter student ID numbers manually, the food line moves much faster. In addition, Thompson says, the finger-scanning system has resulted in students' missing less instructional time.

“Before students might play games and say, ‘I can't find my ID,’ and miss class looking for it or getting a temporary ID,” says Thompson.

And because students don't have to carry an ID, they don't receive punishment — suspension or detention — for not having one.

“We have cut down significantly on suspension,” says Thompson. “The school settles down much more quickly in the morning.”

Students also use finger scanning to check out materials in the library. The Edgefield County district is looking at expanding use of the system to middle schools.

Before the high school adopted the system, Thompson says that some parents were leery of the technology. “They were wondering, ‘Where is this information going?’” he says.

The school district assured the community that although the finger-scanning technology recorded unique identifying points on a student's finger, it could not re-create an actual fingerprint.

“I haven't had a single negative phone call about it,” says Thompson.



Approximate number of locations that accept a campus card carried by a student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ont.


Number of on-campus locations at Carleton University where students can add money to their campus card accounts.


Number of times a day that campus card accounts at Carleton University are updated.

Source: Carleton University

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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