Getting Carded

Card security now a core part of attendance features at schools

IN recent years, investigative reporters have uncovered security vulnerabilities in what are believed to be closely monitored applications: school buildings. In too many instances, investigators are able to slip into school buildings without being stopped, and administrators find out about the security breach on the evening news.

Advances in wireless technology have created new opportunities for unauthorized access to systems and networks -- and passwords just aren't enough anymore.

For some schools, it's a wake-up call needed to initiate a security ID card program. For others, security programs have been part of the landscape for years. Today, administrators are finding a wide variety of options to keep students and faculty safer, and in the process, enhance convenience, efficiency and productivity.

Access Control
Just as the need for school security has grown, so have the number of uses found in school ID cards. Most begin by providing basic visual security for students, faculty, staff, visitors and volunteers. School officials soon find that adding intelligence, such as bar codes, magnetic stripes, RFID and computer chips to cards enables an access control program to monitor who enters the building and when.

Access control can be as sophisticated as a school wants, from a single card reader at the front door to a program that ties into the local criminal justice system, as a New York school district has done for its substitute teachers. This connection provides a daily confirmation of any criminal violations as recent as the night before. Substitute teachers scan their card through a card reader attached to a standard PC in the administration office. Information on the card is checked against the master database, which contains data from the criminal justice system. In seconds, the teacher's ID is displayed on the PC against a color-coded background. Green indicates the teacher may enter the classroom. Yellow signifies a warning, which might indicate something as simple as out-of-date information. A flashing red screen indicates a problem, and the teacher is held back from the classroom until it is resolved.

Advances in wireless technology have created new opportunities for unauthorized access to systems and networks -- and passwords just aren't enough anymore. Many schools, especially colleges and universities, are realizing that securing access to the school's IT infrastructure can be just as important as securing physical access around the campus itself.

Student Tracking
Administrators at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, N.Y., introduced a more sophisticated student and faculty identification system, enabling officials to track student schedules with bar-code technology, ensuring students are where they are supposed to be. Daily schedules are incorporated into a student management database and then exported and uploaded into handheld scanners, which read the bar code on a student's ID card. School officials say the program is especially beneficial in identifying students in the cafeteria, library and computer labs.

At another school, tardiness was a major issue. The school had been using a sign-in sheet for tardy students, leaving an overwhelmed clerk to deal with as many as 100 students on any given day, many of whom were enjoying the clerk's discomfort. The students were further delayed from getting to class by the cumbersome procedure, and the school had no means of enforcing discipline for multiple infractions. The introduction of a student bar-code ID system that tracks the behavior reduced tardiness by 30 percent.

Meal Programs
Many schools use ID cards with bar codes to enable students to charge school lunches. Not only does this speed up the lunch line, but it also encourages students to carry or wear their ID cards.

For students at the Painesville City Local School District in Ohio, the cafeteria provided an awkward moment. While most paid for their lunches with cash or had their parents pay ahead of time, those who qualified for a government subsidized lunch had to share the information with the cashier, often in front of friends. Now, a photo ID card communicates all necessary information confidentially, removing any stigma involved with free lunches. As a result, more students are participating in the free lunch program, and the school receives more federal money. ID cards used for meal programs also can warn users when the balance is running low, alert cafeteria workers to a student's food allergies and give parents control over what a child eats or doesn't eat.

Student Activities
ID cards can enable quick library and equipment check out. Cards also can be used as colorful tickets for school plays or as schedules for sporting events. Some schools strike agreements with local merchants that provide discounts to students presenting their ID card.

"Using ID cards as marketing tools and for retail loyalty at campus bookstores are new uses in the college sector," said Ken Livengood, vice president of Daymark Solutions, a systems integrator with extensive experience in the education market.

Debit Card Activities
At Everglades High School in Miramar, Fla., a campaign is underway to create a cashless campus. All students in Broward County, where the 3,200-student high school is located, have been using ID cards for school identification for more than 10 years. A few years ago, after a rash of vending machine break-ins, Everglades added debit privileges to its ID cards so students must charge purchases at vending machines.

In addition, debit cards at Everglades High School are now used in the media center and for certain student activities such as purchasing yearbooks and prom tickets. Use of debit cards at athletic events is especially enticing to administrators who were uneasy with the amount of money changing hands during some of these activities.

Everglades High School paid for its smart card program using county capital funding and help from companies in the area. The school had arrangements with three different financial organizations to act as global banks for the school's activities. With new rules and regulations for financial disclosure, schools thinking about adding a debit card program should become familiar with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and make sure financial records are in order, especially if pre-paid cards are involved.

Are Universities Different?
Security remains a key motivator for ID card use at colleges and universities, especially for those with on-campus housing.

"University residential facilities have to be very proactive about protecting residents," Livengood said. "If they don't do something, they are almost guaranteed an incident."

Most universities, however, are interested in more than security when considering ID cards. They want efficiency, convenience and productivity. There also is an emerging interest in multi-functional cards on college campuses, adding proximity and contactless technology to cards with bar codes and magnetic stripes for parking privileges, food service, laundry, bookstore use and logical access.

Colleges also have to be concerned with reliability of the ID cards, especially when issuing large numbers in a short time. The cards also must be durable, as many of them go through the laundry in pants pockets or are used as ice scrapers during long, cold winters.

The challenge with ID cards at colleges is multiple disparate systems and infrastructures, paralyzing people from doing anything because of the technology tradeoffs and the task of determining the appropriate funding source. IT experts on campus are becoming powerful, forward-thinking advocates for technology. Many start by selling the smart card concept as security for dorm access, and then leverage the college's investment in the card by finding other applications. As the price of access control card readers continues to decline, smart card adoption grows.

How Much Technology is Enough?
ID card technology has advanced tremendously recently, creating greater options for photo ID cards. Administrators need to look into the future as they begin an ID card program, considering current requirements, as well as how needs may grow when deciding how much technology to include.

Some cards contain magnetic encoding, which can include information about access levels, class schedules, grades, faculty employment history and cash for stored value cards. Others use bar coding for information a school does not want printed. Digital signatures also can be added for comparison during a security check.

Smart cards, or cards with an embedded small computer chip, and contactless cards, which have a chip and an antenna coil, are popular options today. High schools generally use contact cards that need to be inserted into a smart card reader so a direct connection can be made with the contact points on the card to transmit data. Contactless, or proximity cards, are more common on college campuses and can be held close to a card reader and still transmit data. The internal antenna provides greater security than magnetic stripe cards.

For further protection, some schools add holograms that use either a generic image or a specially designed illustration. Schools also can add higher security features such as micro text, UV printing or precision repeats. Universities especially need to stay ahead of resourceful students who have become adept at making counterfeit cards.

Today, there are products on the market to secure the card printing process itself such as elements that automatically disable a stolen or improperly accessed unit or notify security personnel of violations to a printer's authorized hours of operation. Another layer of protection can be added for schools with multiple locations by helping administrators manage an ID card system in a networked environment.

"Administrators and IT staff have a good handle on what's available from a technology standpoint," Livengood said. "If they had the budget and the staff, they would be doing a lot more."

Yet every little bit helps. Automated tracking and reading is a good addition to visual security, but administrators recognize a true access control system with readers in labs and locker rooms is easier said than done. Students need access, and schools don't want to put up unnecessary barriers. Nevertheless, in order to have true security, schools need to take the next step.

The Bottom Line
Experts in school safety have long known that a photo ID program is a proven tool in maintaining security. Despite attention given to random school violence, the more common scenario involves a former student who returns to seek vengeance or the parent in a custody battle who takes a child from school.

"People have lives that are sometimes messy," Livengood said. "Photo ID cards can't stop an intruder with a gun, but they can provide an important tool to help schools manage the more likely incidents."

Schools that use ID cards should make sure the cards are displayed, not only on students, but also on faculty, staff, visitors, volunteers and contractors. ID cards can provide a sense of security to parents and administrators, but unless the cards are actually tied to an access control system that monitors entries and exits, school officials are just fooling themselves. In that case, administrators would do well to watch the evening news.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Security Products, pgs. 24-25.


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