A Smart Move

Sept. 1, 2005
Integrating smart cards is a logical progression for students and administrators.

Students are not the only ones learning something new in high schools today. Growing numbers of high school administrators are turning to smart cards to improve security and reduce vandalism on campuses. The cards also make it more convenient for students to gain access to equipment, charge cafeteria meals and even buy prom tickets.

Many schools already have photo ID systems in place, so integrating smart cards is a logical progression for students and administrators. The process can be simple and successful.

What are smart cards?

Smart cards are ID cards that contain memory or microprocessor chips, enabling them to provide access control, automate routine functions and manage debit school accounts. Similar to a floppy disk, a memory chip stores information. Microprocessor chips operate like computers with the ability to add, delete or update information. Cards with memory chips are less expensive than those with microprocessors, but they also offer less security.

Smart cards can be contact cards, with a small chip embedded in the card itself, or contactless cards, which have both a chip and an antenna coil. Contact cards, the kind used by most of the high schools that use smart cards, must be inserted into a smart-card reader so that a direct connection can be made with the contact points on the card to transmit the data. Contactless cards can pass within a certain distance from a card reader and still transmit data. Contactless cards also are known as proximity cards.

The first step for high schools contemplating the addition of smart cards is to analyze their needs.

Security is the main reason most high schools turn to smart-card programs. Faculty and staff want to provide the most secure environment for students, starting with an access-control program to monitor who comes into the school. Access control can be as simple as a single card reader at the main door or something as sophisticated as a program that ties into the local criminal-justice system.

Securing a school's IT infrastructure can be just as important as securing the front door. Advances in wireless technology have multiplied the opportunities for unauthorized access to systems and networks. Schools concerned about improving their security should consider programs for securing logical access.

Many schools use passwords to secure their networks: for instance, teachers can use passwords to get into the district's database to enter student grades. But passwords are relatively easy for an experienced computer hacker to decode. More sophisticated authentication processes often include a smart card that enables administrators to track and control the use of networks, preventing misuse of student information.

Security is the major reason schools use smart cards, but convenience and efficiency are important, too. Smart cards facilitate library and equipment checkout, and can speed admission to student activities. Schools should consider these benefits when deciding if a smart-card program is right for them.

Smart cards with debit functions also can charge vending machine or cafeteria purchases, or give students discounts with area merchants. It is possible to have multiple “purses” on one card: one for low-volume transactions, such as charging meals in the cafeteria, the other purse for higher-dollar activities, including sporting events. Parents and students can choose which purse to fund at any given time.

Getting started

A common mistake that many schools make is underestimating the impact of smart cards. The introduction of a smart-card program involves everyone, from the security and facility managers to bookstore and cafeteria staff. The more uses for the card, the more departments that need to be involved, and the more complex the implementation becomes. Schools are wise to go slowly, taking it one step at a time.

The first step is to determine the full range of services desired and select a vendor that can help with the setup and provide on-site project support. Most vendors will welcome the opportunity to provide input at an early stage.

Also, schools should make sure their ID-card printers will accommodate smart cards. Traditional dye-sublimation printers do not provide high-quality printing on cards with embedded electronics, resulting in common problems such as blurred edges around smart chips. Reverse image printers are made to accommodate the uneven surfaces of smart cards and produce a high-quality card. In addition, smart cards can be encoded within the printer, in the same process as printing. This speeds the card-issuance process and ensures the right card has the right data encoded.

The most visible part of a smart-card program is the card itself, but there are back-end services that need to be considered, such as where to put the card readers and what kind of software to use. Schools considering using smart cards to access vending machines should check with vending companies. Many will pay for card readers attached to their machines, as vending companies benefit from less vandalism and theft, too.

Software is another consideration. It is important for the software to integrate seamlessly with a school's own internal system so schools can manage the cards with one database. Schools that don't have the ability to network all applications should choose offline software.

Schools should start the process of setting up a smart-card system early, enabling them to explain the system to parents and students during open houses at the beginning of a school year. Any privacy concerns can be addressed at this time. Systems integrators often will attend these orientation sessions to explain the system.

Finally, with new rules and regulations for financial disclosure, schools thinking about using debit cards should have their financial records in order at least a quarter before beginning use of the smart cards, especially if prepaid cards are involved. Check the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for more details.

Enhancing protection

Although the majority of schools re-badge their students every year, some are trying to be more efficient by asking the students to keep their ID cards from year to year. This presents special challenges. The cards undergo rigorous use, often are misplaced and probably go through more laundry cycles than one can imagine. Therefore, cards need to be durable enough to withstand the lifestyle of a high school student. Applying an overlaminate to a printed card gives cards a layer of protection that even helps prevent fading caused by extensive exposure to sunlight.

Schools also might consider adding another layer of security to their cards in the form of holographic images, either generic or designed specifically for the school. Holograms can be simple, contained in a peel-and-stick seal, or they can be extremely sophisticated, with features such as microtext, flip images and pseudo color, contained in a clear patch that is adhered to a card with a one-pass printing/laminating process.

Sidebar: Making smart cards do more

Some high schools have unique uses for smart cards. At a New York school district, a smart-card program for substitute teachers is tied into the criminal justice system, providing daily confirmation of criminal violations as recent as the night before. Special attention is paid to individuals with a criminal history of drug use, sexual misconduct, weapons possession or assault.

Each of the participating schools in this district has a card reader attached to a standard PC in the administration office to scan ID cards from substitute teachers as they enter their assigned schools for the day. When information on the card is checked against information in the master database, the teacher's ID is displayed on the PC against a color-coded background. Green indicates permission to enter the classroom. Yellow signifies a warning, perhaps out-of-date information. A flashing red screen indicates a problem, and the teacher is not permitted to teach until the problem is resolved.

Not all schools stop with access-control systems. Many also want to lower the amount of cash students carry, thus reducing safety concerns and cutting down on vandalism, especially to vending machines and cash machines.

At Everglades High School in Miramar, Fla., a rash of vending machine break-ins triggered a move to a cashless campus. In addition to using ID cards to make purchases from vending machines, students can conduct a variety of transactions on campus without cash. They can purchase yearbooks and prom tickets, as well as use the media center. Soon they also will be able to use their cards to get into athletic events for a discounted, upfront fee.

“Setting this up was a little work at the beginning,” says Fred Azrak, athletic director and overseer of the Everglades ID-card program, “but it's been worth it. We have had no incidents of robbery, because our students don't need money here. It is a more secure school now.”

Wright is the director of marketing for Fargo Electronics, Inc., Minneapolis. Robert Alonso of PlascoID, a Fargo systems integrator, contributed to the article.

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