The Revolution in I.D. Cards

It may take Santa Claus to know which children are naughty or nice, but these days, student identification cards know everything else -- well, almost.

Software, hardware and the latest innovations have elevated the student identification card beyond a name and photograph. The card has become a key to linking a myriad of information, such as security, food, library and transportation services, parent communication and more.

While this may appear to smack of “Big Brotherism,” it actually can afford students a modicum of privacy, safety and dignity -- particularly at an age when appearances are everything to the self-esteem of developing youth. At the same time, it provides schools and districts with a means of tracking and maintaining student data, streamlining recordkeeping and reporting functions.

Districts are beginning to adopt “smart,” and smarter, card technology as a means to track their student populations, though use, as yet, has not become widespread.

Name, Rank and Serial Number

All middle, freshman school and high school students, as well as employees, in the Allen (Tex.) Independent School District are required to wear identification cards around their necks as a matter of security, says Bobby L. Curtis, the district’s executive director of facilities. However, when the district built the new Allen High School, it decided to incorporate smart identification cards into the technology being included in the new building. Then, since the technology was available, it was extended to the middle schools and freshman school. Students below seventh grade do not use identification cards.

Before the advent of the new smart card system, students and staff had separate identification cards for entrance to the school, the cafeteria and the school library. Curtis says they wanted to find a way to consolidate all three functions onto a single photo identification card.

According to Curtis, the district has been using a bar-coded photo ID card since August 1999. The bar code number on each card is tagged to that person’s Social Security number, since that is one statistic that doesn’t change, he says. The cards, however, are reissued annually because, as Curtis notes, a child’s appearance generally changes from year to year.

The identification card is presented in the cafeteria -- for some, in lieu of being checked off on the free or reduced-fee lunch list. For cash customers, funds can be prepaid to an account, which is debited accordingly when the card is presented.

Library services also are keyed to the identification card, allowing students and staff to check out books and other media items. Information for lunch and library services, however, is maintained on separate servers at each school site, requiring the information to be entered individually on each server.

On the high school level, students can present their identification cards at school activities, such as athletic events, where their student activity accounts may be debited for the fees.

The bar codes on staff identification cards allow for building and internal room access, though only the high school and two elementary schools currently are online for external magnetic locks. Curtis says building access controls for staff-only access areas can be set up on the facilities server.

Lost or stolen cards can be dealt with rapidly, Curtis says. The individual’s file is accessed at the server and the bar-code number on the ID card is modified, voiding the missing card. A new card, with photograph, can be issued in a matter of minutes.

The cost of the cards runs about 89 cent apiece and is absorbed by the school district through the general fund.

While they currently have no plans to extend use of the identification cards, Curtis says he possibly could see their use for attendance-taking and transportation. He adds that when it comes to the amount of information that potentially can be handled by a single card, “The sky becomes the limit.”

An Even Smarter Card

The plan is for one card to do it all, and Florida’s Ocoee Middle School (featured in the January issue of School Planning & Management) is making it happen as a part of its mandate under the state’s SMART schools initiative.

According to Ocoee’s principal, Kate Clark, students and staff will use their identification cards, called “proximity cards,” for building access, so that “this whole school can be kept locked down” for security purposes. It also will be used for food and library services, computer access and vending, she explains.

The cards, being produced by the Orlando franchise of Virginia-based Sonitrol Security, will have two forms of identifier -- an internal microchip governing access and an external bar code for the smart side of the card.

William Ford, general manager of Sonitrol’s Orlando franchise, says Ocoee’s buildings will be equipped with outside card readers which employ the highest security level, making them virtually tamper-proof. To gain entry, students will merely tap their ID cards against the reader for it to scan the encoded microchip. Surveillance cameras also will scan the area.

Inside the building, students will use their identification cards to access their grade-level areas. The cards will allow students to enter only their specific classroom quadrants.

Time restrictions can be placed on access for both students and staff. Clark says the access server can be programmed with information regarding the days school is in session, the hours of the day access is permitted, and what areas the cardholder is allowed to access.

Ford says the cards can generate reports that tell who used their card, which area they used it for and when it was used. Should a person attempt to gain access to a building or room outside of the allowable time or area designated by their access code, the server will generate an exception report that is forwarded immediately to security and the authorities can be contacted.

Should a card be lost or stolen, another card can be issued in about 10 minutes and the original card voided. If someone then tries to use the original card, it will generate an exception report for unauthorized use and notify the authorities immediately.

An additional measure of security for students will be an 800 number on the card. Clark says if students find themselves in emergency situations, they can call the 800 number on the card and give their student ID numbers. Their contact information can be accessed via computer and emergency numbers called until someone is reached.

The identification cards can act as equalizers in the lunch line, notes Clark. With about 40 percent of the student population on free or reduced-fee lunches, some students preferred to go without eating, rather than go through the embarrassment of having their peers know they were on that list. At that age, Clark explains, children don’t want to stand out.

By using the cards, information is retained in the school’s computers and the scanned bar code can either debit a student’s lunch account or identify him or her as being on the free or reduced-fee lunch program -- and no one will know which it is. It also keeps records of what the student had for lunch and how much was spent. Parents prepaying a student’s food service account can, if they choose, stipulate how much their child may spend each day for lunch or vending.

Since Ocoee has a somewhat transient student population, Clark says the ID cards can help to alleviate other awkward situations. She explains that, often, when students transfer between schools, they will go to the school library and try to check out materials, only to be told they’re “not in the system.” The librarian has to stop, take the student’s information, then enter it into the computer, leaving the student feeling conspicuous.

Instead, with the new “smarter” cards, the librarian can simply access the student’s information file, load it to the library’s computers, then check out the student’s materials.

If there’s any down-side to the proximity cards, Ford says, it’s the $5-per-card cost. He adds, however, that the cards are extremely durable and can be reused.

Robbin M. Rittner-Heir is a freelance writer based in Dayton, Ohio, who writes frequently about educational issues.