Let 'em In?

Sept. 1, 2006
Access-control systems enable schools and universities to keep unauthorized people out of their facilities.

They didn't use the term “access control” in the 1932 Marx Brothers movie, “Horse Feathers,” but that's one way to characterize Chico's feeble efforts to keep the password “swordfish” a secret and prevent Groucho from wheedling his way into a speakeasy.

More than 70 years later, access control for most schools and universities is a lot more complicated than knowing a secret password, and for administrators striving to provide safe campuses, it's no laughing matter.

With millions of students and staff members coming and going, and billions of dollars of materials and equipment within their walls, the nation's education facilities are tempting targets for potential thieves, vandals or others prone to criminal behavior.

A school's access-control system — whether it's a staff of carefully deployed security officers monitoring key areas, or a more elaborate assembly of technology, alarms and camera surveillance — can make the difference in an institution's efforts to provide a safe environment for learning.

Cause for concern

Administrators may long for the days when a school was considered a haven for students to learn without the outside world intruding. But after observing troubling events on campuses nationwide over the years, most school officials acknowledge that safety and security are integral ingredients when creating an environment conducive to learning.

In the National Center for Education Statistics report, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2005,” students aged 12 to 18 reported more than 1.9 million incidents in which they were victims of crime at school in 2003; that equates to about 73 crimes for every 1,000 students. More than 738,000 of those crimes were characterized as violent.

Crimes affect more than just the specific victims. Students anxious about school safety are less likely to focus on their studies. “Where We Learn,” a National School Boards Association survey of urban school climates, found that 24 percent of students felt uncertain about their safety while at school. More than 26 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 said they believed other students brought knives or guns to school, and another 42 percent said they were not sure whether students were coming to school with weapons, “an uncertainty that could cause anxiety,” the report says.

Assessing conditions

The type of facility and the area in which it is situated will affect the level of security that educators desire or community members demand. A school in a congested urban area will have different security concerns than one on an isolated site. A university conducting sensitive or potentially dangerous scientific research will have potential risks that might not arise at a neighborhood elementary school.

The U.S. Department of Education's “Practical Information on Crisis Planning” urges school administrators to work with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to assess potential threats and hazards.

Many tactics

Once a school or university has determined the appropriate level of security, officials have to decide what kinds of protection to provide. Administrators have to weigh the costs of personnel, systems and equipment, and figure out if students, employees and other constituents will be able to adapt to new security procedures.

Incorporating access-control strategies into the design of a campus is one way to bolster security without calling attention to the measure. For instance, having a limited number of entrances to a campus and to buildings can deter intruders and help security personnel focus resources more efficiently. Use of fences, gates, lighting and landscaping can help a school discourage unwanted visitors.

But most school facilities were designed and built before security had become such a critical priority, and in most cases, efforts at providing natural access control need to be supplemented by other steps.

Outside a facility, having sufficient amounts of lighting can discourage potential intruders who don't want their activities to be put into the spotlight. Making sure that any bushes or other landscaping elements are trimmed properly will remove another potential area of cover for would-be intruders.

The most obvious way to control access to a building is to make sure doors and windows can be locked securely. Poorly maintained or deteriorating door and window systems can tempt an intruder to take advantage of a weak spot and enter a facility.

A door that locks properly loses its effectiveness if a key that opens it falls into the wrong hands. To avoid that problem, schools need an effective key-control system that tracks who possesses a key and makes unauthorized duplication difficult.

Schools with many doors can limit access by retrofitting those doors so they can't be opened from the outside. By equipping those doors with alarms, officials can be alerted when those doors are opened without authorization.

Having all students and staff wear an identification badge can further enhance security. Not every student or staff member knows every other student or staff member, so when everyone with permission to be in the building is wearing an ID, unauthorized visitors are easy to spot. Though not always popular with students, mandatory uniforms are another way for school officials to quickly identify who is a student and who isn't.

Communications systems that enable teachers in classrooms to stay in contact with the main office and with other staff members can help schools respond quickly when someone sees an unauthorized visitor in the building.

Checking in

A basic way of controlling visitor access to a school is to have all visitors report to the main office. Schools should prominently display signs notifying visitors of this policy. Many schools provide visitors with badges to let students and staff know the visitors have permission to be there.

The easier it is for visitors to find a school's main office, the better schools can monitor and control visitor access. The ideal location for the administrative office is where workers have a view of the main entrance. Office personnel can see visitors approaching and take action if someone does not check in at the office.

In some cases, schools may lock the front entrance, and office personnel can admit visitors once they determine that their visit is legitimate.

Having security officers monitor who enters a school building is an effective way of keeping unwanted visitors out of a facility. Security cameras can record who enters and exits a building.

Students or others authorized to enter a building can pose threats by bringing in weapons or other dangerous materials. Metal detectors can find such materials before they do any harm.

For facilities with lots of traffic at all hours of the day and a need to keep track of who has come and gone, access-control card systems are commonly used. The cards carry information about a user, including which facilities he or she has access to, and at what times. Some cards have to be swiped through a reader; proximity cards just have to be placed close to a reader to register information.

Students at many college campuses use cards for many functions in addition to general identification. To eliminate wallet bulge and help simplify a student's life, many college campuses have combined numerous functions onto a single card, commonly known as a one-card system.

For some higher-security areas of a campus, an access card may be used in combination with a pass code, similar to what banks require at automatic teller machines.

A step beyond access-control cards is biometric systems. They use technology to “read” a person's specific features, such as fingerprints, hand prints, faces or eyes, to determine whether to grant access. Because those traits are specific to an individual, the biometric systems provide greater security than an access card, which could fall into the hands of an unauthorized person.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

Standardizing systems

To improve security on its campus, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is establishing a Centralized Card Access System.

Instead of having individual university departments deciding what types of access-control systems to install, school officials have adopted a one-vendor system that will help standardize access control throughout the campus.

“In the past there were a number of disparate systems across campus providing various levels of access control,” according to the university police department. “These systems were of various quality and reliability … A central system will allow the (university) to be sure the right people are in the right places at the right times.”

After assessing the level of risk to people, research projects and other valuable resources in a facility, the university has assigned a priority level: high (red), medium (blue) or low (green). Students and staff members receive proximity cards to gain access to appropriate areas. Some higher-security areas also might require a user to enter a code on a keypad or have a fingerprint scanned by a biometric reader before access is granted.

The university still issues separate identification cards for students, but eventually, the university plans to adopt a “one-card” system that will hold access-control capabilities, as well as information about the individual cardholder.

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