Integrating information technology can extend the capabilities of school security systems far beyond traditional card access.
Security technologies change slowly. The basic technologies that many schools use - including card-access systems and closed-circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance - will probably be in place for many years.
That doesn't mean that the situation is static. For one thing, identification systems known as biometric technologies, long used in high-security installations, are now more suitable for widespread use and could enhance school security systems.
A more sweeping and important development is the integration of electronic security and information technology (IT). This integration augments the capabilities of card-access and CCTV systems.
ACCESS AND ATTENDANCE School administrators intent on bolstering security technology have to confront a basic paradox: the more obtrusive security equipment a school contains, the less safe it feels. Combining card-access technology with time-and-attendance functions provides one way of augmenting security without intensifying the feeling that the environment is unsafe.
Coupling access with attendance functions is a natural fit. After all, security is not just a matter of preventing unauthorized persons from entering; it also is a matter of making sure that everyone who's supposed to be in a certain place at a certain time is there.
In high schools, homeroom instructors usually keep official attendance records. It is a cumbersome and incomplete method. Typically, there's often a lag of a day or more from the time attendance is taken to the time that the information is available to administrators.
Moreover, homeroom attendance records show only who was and who was not in school - and in the right place - at the start of the school day. Individual teachers keep attendance records for their classes, but before the advent of networked access-and-attendance functions, there was no easy way to gain an overview of students' presence in or absence from classes throughout the school day.
For schools that already use access cards and a turnstile card-reader to control entry to the building, requiring them to do the same to enter any classroom would not greatly add to the system's intrusiveness. And the value of the information gathered - the amount of information, its accuracy and the speed with which it can be collated and interpreted - might well offset that small additional burden.
For example, if each classroom equipped with a card reader also has a computerized, networked teacher's station, the instructor can check the attendance information supplied by the card reader and discover instantaneously whether any students have swiped their cards through the reader and then wandered off.
The attendance information gathered by the classroom card-readers also could be made available to parents through the school's website.
One big problem with card-access systems is that people lose or forget their cards. In schools with large enrollments or where there's high student turnover, this can be a serious problem. The person monitoring the entryway turnstiles might not recognize the person claiming to have lost a card. Video badging can solve that problem.
With a video-badging access system, the administration keeps an electronic file with a digitized image of every enrolled student. A guard or monitor using the computer station at the point of entry can immediately check the identity of anyone who has forgotten or lost a card.
BIOMETRIC TECHNOLOGY Various biometric identification technologies - hand geometry, fingerprint ID, facial recognition, iris and retinal scanning - have been available for some time. But their cost and the perception of some people that they are invasions of privacy have limited their use.
Even as the price of biometric systems declines, some of these techniques are unlikely to be used in schools. Fingerprint technologies do not seem to be practical because of the fear that schools might share fingerprint images with law-enforcement agencies. With iris and retinal scanning techniques, many people would be wary of any device that threatens to "poke" them in the eye, even when there's no actual danger or discomfort.
But two biometric technologies - hand geometry and facial recognition - show real promise as components in schools' security/IT systems. They provide virtually foolproof identification, and they are relatively free of negative psychological connotations.
Hand geometry might, for example, prove very useful in school medical offices. Confidential data - special medical and pharmaceutical needs, emergency contact information - could be protected so that it is accessible only in the presence of the student.
Facial-recognition technology provides a certainty of identification greater than passwords. There are lots of ways to steal someone's password, but there's no practical way to steal someone's face. That's why facial recognition technology may provide the "electronic signatures" that soon will be legally binding acceptances of electronic contracts.
In schools, facial recognition might take the place of passwords when it comes to gaining access to restricted information such as student records. The hardware and software for facial recognition are relatively inexpensive.
EVENT RECORDING The digital revolution has swept the CCTV field, and the transformation has been remarkable. Digitized "event recording" is replacing analog recording in virtually all applications, including schools. Digital technologies have become less expensive and more reliable, and they offer advantages over conventional time-lapse or tape recording: they are low-maintenance; they virtually eliminate storage problems; they are easily searchable; and they allow images to be recorded and stored at remote locations.
All these advantages are useful to schools. Schools are usually short on maintenance staff and storage space. In digital recording, images are stored on CD-ROMs or hard drives, and computer equipment is less prone to breakdown than mechanical VCRs.
Eliminating videocassettes means schools do not need to find storage space for them. With digital search capabilities, no one needs to spend hours reviewing videotapes to locate an incident captured by the camera.
What's truly innovative, however, about digital recording - and here's the IT connection - is that the images received by cameras can be transmitted over networks. For school districts with their own fiber-optic wide-area networks (WANs), all the images received by all the cameras in all the district's schools can be transmitted to a central location for recording and storage. Centralizing recording and storage in a single location reduces manpower needs and can offer protection against theft - a potential problem with videocassettes that are stored in a cabinet in an administrator's office.