Protecting Schools with Advanced Access Control Systems

Feb. 28, 2005
How to understand the needs of your school and secure it with advanced technology

Today, locks and keys alone aren't enough to keep a school's perimeter secure against unwanted or uncontrolled visitors. From problems with non-custodial parents in a grade school to unauthorized residence hall guests on a college campus, controlling access with greater certainty is the first line of defense to keep a facility secure.

Schools and colleges of all types and sizes are becoming more aware of the security risks posed by unauthorized access and are taking proactive steps to prevent a broad range of potentially threatening or dangerous incidents.

In the K-12 field alone, each of the more than 100,000 public and private schools may have between eight and 20 doors that require perimeter security.

Multiple-building college campuses present a more complex situation, with different types of buildings requiring different levels of security.

Not All Security Needs Are Equal
Not every door has to be a controlled entrance, nor is it always necessary to have 100 percent, 24-hour positive control. The doors to a grade school or middle school may be open during the time students are arriving and then locked down during the school day, as well as after hours. Effective access controls and a monitored main entrance provide the required security during school hours, while some form of electronic access control and a secure credential system allow after-hours access for authorized individuals. Other doors can remain locked unless monitored by a teacher or staff member as part of an activity.

A college or university is more likely to use access controls in specialized areas, such as laboratories, computer facilities, libraries and athletic facilities than for general academic buildings, at least during hours of operation. Residence halls and other housing facilities are another area where higher security may be required. Matching the available security options with each specific application is easier with a decision-making framework.

Sorting out the Security Levels
One way to reduce the complexity of security decisions is to organize the key elements into levels that form a Security Pyramid (See illustration #1).

The base of the pyramid, Level 1 (Mechanical Access/Egress Control), represents the fundamental mechanical locking system that restricts free access or egress through an opening. It includes keyed locks and other mechanical products. At this level, security is focused mainly on protection from threats such as theft or vandalism and on providing a physical barrier to intruders, However, if any part of this mechanical base is weak, the higher levels of a system's security can be compromised. It also provides the physical latching needed to secure an opening so it meets fire safety codes.

At Level 2 (Electronic Access Control and Key Management), standalone, programmable, battery-powered locks are networked through software to provide audit trail capability and time-based scheduling for restricting access. Patent-restricted keyways provide the key control that is necessary for high security. This is particularly true for sophisticated electronic systems, which generally still have a mechanical key override. With a patented keyway, a school's administration or university's security department controls the key blanks as well as the key cutting equipment. To minimize security breaches from key misuse, these keys should be tightly controlled, assigned to as few people as possible, and audited regularly.

Level 3 (Networked Access Control and Biometrics) incorporates biometric products that can verify hand geometry, fingerprints or facial characteristics to ensure that only persons who actually are authorized can gain access to a particular door. In a network they may be combined with various sensing and monitoring products placed around the opening or integrated into the latching and locking mechanism to detect, deter and delay an intruder and also signal that a breach has occurred. While not yet widespread, some schools are using biometric access control to eliminate the need to issue cards or keys to teaching or administrative staff members for after-hours access.

Level 4 (Facility Integration) covers all the previous levels plus additional areas managed by software solutions, such as time-and-attendance systems, personnel scheduling systems, and data capture techniques. These can reduce the need for security staff or monitors, provide audit trails to resolve problems, speed response time if a problem occurs, minimize maintenance, and make it possible to create a central command and control area when appropriate.

Online access control systems have become common on college and university campuses, and school districts are now beginning to move in the same direction. Integrated access control systems that incorporate on-line access control, CCTV/DVR, alarm monitoring and badging are taking their place in schools at all levels.

Security Solutions
Commonplace open key systems offer little real protection. Duplicates are readily available at hardware stores and mall key shops, and lax key control can lead to security problems. Restricted key systems offer somewhat greater security because key distribution is controlled. However, unless the keyway is patent-protected, a "Do Not Duplicate" stamp on the key provides little real protection. With a patented keyway, anyone other than the manufacturer who makes key blanks available is in violation of Federal patent laws. These are restricted further when the manufacturer agrees not to sell a specific patented key configuration to anyone else within a defined geographic area.

With these levels of security available, it is important to know what level is desired and select the proper keyway.

Moving into electronic locking, there are many variations available, each providing a different combination of security and convenience. Schools that desire more control options than are available with mechanical key systems may use magnetic stripe or proximity cards or i-Buttons. Electronic locks that are used with these credentials often have the ability to restrict access to certain individuals, during specific hours or days, or for limited periods of time. Some also incorporate audit trail recording that can be helpful in investigating incidents of theft or vandalism.

Although these locks may be hard-wired into a network, the same results can be obtained with standalone computer-managed (CM) locks, which are networked by using a Palm Pilot or other PDA to download data from a computer. This eliminates the cost and problems associated with hard-wiring, especially in existing buildings. The battery-powered CM locks typically operate for more than a year on standard commercial batteries.

At Schools At the new Clackamas High School in North Clackamas, Oregon, computerization and electronic credentials are used where needed, but simpler solutions also are applied whenever they will deliver the desired results. Every exterior exit is wired so it can be "dogged down" (retracted) electrically from one of two central office locations. If an emergency lockdown situation occurs, all doors can be locked at once to protect the perimeter, while the exit devices still allow safe egress for those inside. Interior classroom doors are equipped with a lock cylinder on the inside so the door can be locked down without the teacher having to go into the corridor, which could be unsafe. The combination of central unlocking control for perimeter doors with individual inside locking for interior doors provides the security needed without excess cost or complication.

All building entrances at Clackamas High School are equipped with proximity card readers that allow authorized individuals to enter. Cards can be issued to allow access only to the gym, auditorium or cafeteria for scheduled community activities. The cards activate exit devices with electric latch retraction or electric strikes to allow entry during specified times. Some keys are issued for access to the building, but only to those with an ongoing need. To prevent unauthorized duplication, the school uses the Schlage Primus high security key system, primarily on exterior doors and high-security interior doors such as computer labs.

To help the West Islip, New York K-12 district determine the exact type and condition of existing hardware on each door and establish a priority for its replacement, consultants conducted a security and safety needs assessment at the district's six elementary schools, two middle schools, and the West Islip high school. To regain key control, the district standardized on the Schlage Primus patented keyway system, a system which makes key blanks only available through the manufacturer.

At the high school, because of its size and more complex access control requirements, CM standalone electronic locks were installed on some exterior doors. These Locknetics locks accept either i-Button or magnetic card credentials, and PIN numbers can be added as well. The locks also can control or restrict access during specific hours and provide an audit trail of who used or attempted to use the lock. If an i-Button is lost or a teacher forgets to turn it in when leaving the district, it can simply be deleted from the database. This avoids the cost of rekeying and maintains the desired level of security.

Some K-12 schools are moving into biometrics for certain applications.

Robert C. Byrd High School, in Clarksburg, W.Va., has installed a hand reader to control access to its critical mechanical room, the heart of the school's physical plant. Custodians and other authorized school personnel now must swipe their identification badge and scan their hand to enter the room.

One high school in Idaho has installed a hand reader to control after-hours access to its main entrance. The principal is so pleased with the results that he plans to add two more readers at opposite ends of the school, so teachers and coaches can enter closer to their areas.

At Colleges and Universities Colleges have a much broader variety of applications. Depending on the need for security, everything from mechanical keying through electronic locking to biometrics may be required. Here are a few examples of what some colleges and universities have done.

Pace University, in Pleasantville, N.Y., has improved access control and reduced the need to rekey hundreds of door locks at its seven locations in Manhattan and the Westchester County area by converting to computer-managed (CM) standalone locks. Previously, several different mechanical key systems were in use, and it was all but impossible to control access with any certainty. Some of the campuses also include student housing, and counting classrooms, residence halls, offices, storage closets and other uses, there are probably between 5,000 and 6,000 doors of all types. Frequent re-keying was necessary when keys were lost or people left the university, and updating was a time-consuming process. Now, the CM access control system provides flexible control without the need for hard-wiring each door location. Students use ID cards for access, and the CM locks make it easy to compensate for lost cards.

To accommodate its continuing growth, California State University - Dominguez Hills, in Carson, Calif., selected a CM access control system with the flexibility to allow different credentials and parameters as needs change. With a high percentage of evening students, class and study hours are more varied, and the faculty members need the ability to lock and unlock doors themselves. Although they want a high level of security, they also want to be able to get into a specific area when they want to. Electronic locking with the computer-managed system provides the flexibility to accommodate both of these seemingly diverse requirements. The university currently uses i-Button credentials, which individuals cannot duplicate.

Using Biometrics to Ensure Identity
Incorporating biometric devices into the system is the only certain way of ensuring that the person being allowed entry is actually the authorized person and is permitted to have access during that time. Nothing else ties a person specifically to a credential. However, a biometric device is only as good as its reliability. Ideally, it should allow a person holding a credential to enter 100 percent of the time during authorized hours, and it should reject unauthorized requests with the same certainty. In practice, a false reject can be just as much of a problem as a false acceptance, and some biometric methods are more reliable than others.

Hand geometry systems use the size and shape of the hand and fingers to verify identity. Length, width, thickness and surface area of the fingers and hand are measured, analyzed, and the unique features are stored in a template, which is used for subsequent verification.

According to Frost & Sullivan's World Biometric Report 2002, hand geometry continues to be a dominant biometric technology for access control and time-and-attendance applications. It is especially well-suited for handling large volumes of transactions where a high degree of reliability is required.

Fingerprint readers use the unique pattern created by the ridges and valleys of the fingerprint characteristics for identification much as law enforcement agencies have for decades, but they automate the process and integrate fingerprint capture and associated algorithms for template creation into their terminals. Fingerprint recognition works best when applied to smaller populations.

Although biometrics may deliver more security than most educational facilities need, remember that card access systems, PIN numbers, keys or other credentials still allow anyone who possesses them to gain entry. They can't provide total control because they can be lost, stolen, borrowed, copied or otherwise compromised. Also, research shows that people who pose a security threat typically will follow the path of least resistance and choose the easiest targets. By installing an access control system geared to your security needs, you can deter such occurrences up front and reduce the possibility of security breaches, along with their associated problems and costs.

If your budget will not accommodate the full access control system you want or need, a system with modular capabilities will make it easier to increase a facility's level of security and move it up the security pyramid. If the products available in a proposed system allow it to be upgraded without replacing the existing equipment, cost savings will accrue in hardware, installation, troubleshooting and possibly maintenance.

Identify the Weakest Link No matter how sophisticated your access control system, it is no better than its weakest link. The higher the level of security required for an area or a school, the more important it is to have the strong support of the levels beneath it. All the electronics in the world won't stop an intruder if the lock on a door doesn't latch properly.

Better security can start with a security and safety needs assessment by a qualified security consulting firm. This should be the first step in taking a proactive approach, rather than one that is reactive. This type of assessment, performed by an outside party, focuses on the school's door openings, key controls, credentials, links with time-and-attendance and personnel scheduling, and other risks inherent with the overall access control system.

Throughout the search for security, it is important to remember that the final choices must comply with local building codes, fire codes and Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. These factors may add to the complexity but must be considered as part of the solution. A professional security consultant can be a big help in achieving the highest level of security while also ensuring that the facility is code-compliant and ADA-compliant.

About the author: Beverly Vigue, AHC/CDC, is vice president, IR Education Solutions. She is responsible for developing the vertical education market for IR Security & Safety. Beverly joined IR in 1999 as Business Development Manager (1999-2000), then led IR's Safe Schools Program from 2000-2002. She has been in her current position since 2002. Before coming to IR, she had over 20 years experience on the distributor side of the door, frame and hardware industry as a Project Manager, General Manager, COO, and finally President/CEO of Swingin' Door Inc. She was responsible for two start-up wholesale companies: the umbrella company of Swingin' Door, Inc.; Instant Hardware Delivery, a hardware wholesaling business and Custom Doors, a wood door wholesaling company. She also led two acquisition teams; one for Swingin' Door and another for Custom Doors.