Access Control Systems, Policies, and Procedures

Early last year, Stephen Kazmierczak drew a gun and opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. He killed five students, and then turned the gun on himself.

In April of 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded others during two attacks, the first on a residence hall and another on a classroom building at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

While ranking among the worst imaginable nightmares, murder remains relatively uncommon on college and university campuses. According to statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Education under the Jeanne Clery or Campus Security Act of 1990, campus murders fell by nearly half, from 43 in 2004 to 24 in 2006 (the most recent year for which Campus Security Act statistics have been totaled).

Most campus crimes take the form of forcible sex offenses, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, and motor vehicle thefts.

In 2006, forcible sex offenses on college and university campuses totaled 3,515. Of those, 1,923 occurred inside residence halls. There were 5,096 robberies in 2006, with 238 occurring inside residence halls. Aggravated assaults totaled 5,575 in 2006, and residence halls accounted for 975 of them.

The most common campus crime is burglary. In 2006, there were 36,096 burglaries reported on campus, with 15,028 occurring in residence halls.

Effective access control technology installed in residence halls might prevent many of those crimes.

Lock the Doors

“We want to be able to lock the exterior doors of our buildings electronically so that a (roving) shooter wouldn’t be able to get in,” said Robert Lang, CPP, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA.

Founded in 1963, Kennesaw State has grown rapidly through the last 10 years. Today, the once small liberal arts school serves 20,000 commuter and residential students, including more than 1,700 students from 136 countries.

Despite the tremendous growth in students and campus buildings, the school continues to work with an aging battery-operated access control system that controls locks on only a handful of doors. “We have to walk around manually to add and subtract users at specific doors,” Lang said. “There is a cabling capability that goes with this system, but we want an application that runs over our (IP) network and enables us to lock down all doors with one button.”

Like it has for many other schools, the current economic environment has made it difficult to replace old access control systems with the newer systems that have come to market in recent years. “The cost of a networked system with the kind of capability we want is prohibitive,” Lang added. “We have 75 buildings with two to six or more doors per building. Even after we buy the basic software application, the system we’ve looked at will cost $3,000 per door for the reader and associated hardware. Then we have to buy cards, too.”

Cost is an issue at many schools today agreed Paul Timm, President of RETA Security in Lemont, IL, a security consulting firm that specializes in educational facilities, including K–12 schools and college and university campuses.

But even schools that can afford up-to-date access control systems frequently fail to use those systems properly, effectively wasting what has been spent on campus security technology, added Timm.

“The value of any security technology is determined by the procedures and training that govern the use of the technology,” Timm said. “Many schools have installed access control systems in their residence halls. Then someone decides to turn the system off from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM because too many students forget their access cards. Or the maintenance people decide that it is too inconvenient for them to carry a card and turn the system off.”

Buying an access control system and then not using it half the time makes the systems even more expensive than the price tag.

“Not only that,” added Timm. “Security means protecting assets. Assets are people, buildings, and things. The number-one asset on a college or university campus is always people, and turning off a security system that specifically protects people for half of every 24 hours for the sake of convenience doesn’t seem wise.

“It makes me nervous, especially when I see statistics that point to a rise in crime experienced by my (college and university) clients — because of the declining economy. And the crime rate will continue to rise as the recession deepens. Right now is the time to put these systems to use.”

That means setting policies and procedures that require the systems to be up and running 24 hours a day.

Think about this: Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, mounted his first attack after entering a co-ed residence hall with 894 students at 6:45 AM. An access control system operated with magnetic swipe cards protected the building’s doors. Cho’s student mailbox was in the lobby of the building, so he did have access privileges. But since he didn’t live there, the privileges were limited and he was not supposed to be able to get into the building before 7:30 AM. Yet he shot his first two victims at 7:15 AM. In other words, he somehow got into a locked-down building before he was permitted to enter.

No one knows how he got in. Perhaps the system had been disabled, or maybe he followed another student with a valid card through a door. Security professionals would view both a disabled system and a tailgating entrance as serious procedural infractions. Because the system was turned off or a person ignored a procedure, Cho got into the building when he otherwise would not have. Who knows what would have happened if he would have had to wait until 7:30 AM? Maybe Cho would have still gone on his rampage. Then again, the disruption may have distracted him.

To be sure, it is difficult to raise or allocate funds for a state-of-the-art access control system based on the small chance that some sort of similar disaster might befall a campus.

Then again, look at all of the crimes, forcible sexual offenses, robberies, aggravated assaults and burglaries that might be prevented if residence halls alone were equipped with a working access control system and students were adequately trained in the procedures and policies that ensure that access control systems will work the way they are supposed to work.