Getting Serious About Access Control

Threats of violence, abduction, drugs and other societal ills are driving K-12 school administrators to improve school access control systems. “We have better technology, hardware and procedures, today,” says Paul Timm, PSP, president of Lemont, Ill.-based RETA Security, Inc. “We really have improved.”

Effective access control systems in K-12 schools include technology and people. Depending on its risk profile, a school might employ electronic access control, visitor management technology, intrusion alarms and video cameras. But, as Timm observes, the best technology won’t help if people don’t learn how to use it properly or fail to employ appropriate procedures.

Adding Technology On a Budget
Technology isn’t cheap, and many administrators balk at the expense of adding access control to two-dozen or more buildings across a school district. If an average school building has 25 doors, complete access control for 24 buildings would involve installing readers and associated hardware at 600 doors.

“You don’t have to do that,” says Timm, pointing out that most school building doors are exit-only doors. They can be permanently locked from the outside. Students, staff, teachers, contractors and delivery trucks and gym classes only need a few of side doors in addition to the main door.

“Choose a couple or three regularly used doors and test access control technology on them,” Timm suggests. “Add on from there.”

You may or may not want to control the front entrance with technology, continues Timm. Usually the front door leads to the main office or into a vestibule, which can be locked, enabling administrators to control access personally.

Managing Visitors

Visitors, of course, use a school’s main entrance, and Timm recommends that schools adopt strict visitor management procedures. “I would lock the vestibule and place a buzzer inside the front entrance or use a window into the front office,” he says.

The point is that you must talk to every visitor. Ask for identification and the reason for the visit, sign the person in and provide a visitor’s badge.

“Every adult in a school should wear a badge,” Timm continues. “I recommend badges on colored lanyards worn around the neck. Visitors should wear one color, while faculty and staff would wear a different color.”

Administrators should question adults without a badge.

“Elementary kids don’t need badges,” Timm says. “But many high school look like adults and probably should wear badges. Middle school is a gray area. Be guided by how mature the kids look.”

Video cameras at the doors can support an access control system. If someone breaks through a door that is always locked or is controlled by technology, an intrusion alarm can activate a camera looking at the door.

Electronic access control and camera technologies are costly and may or may not be necessary. It depends, of course, on the threat profile of individual schools.

Subscribing to Security
These systems also require expensive installation and regular maintenance, software updates and security patches. Equally important, school staff must learn to use the technology properly. “If the staff doesn’t now how to use the technology, the investment is worthless,” says Timm.

Given the cost and complexity of security technology, some school districts have taken out monthly subscriptions to Software as a Service (SaaS) security technology. SaaS companies buy the computers and storage systems that carry out technical tasks. Users pay only a relatively low monthly subscription.

“There are two dozen or so companies that host access control systems,” says Steve Van Till, president and CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Brivo Systems, LLC, which hosts access control, visitor management and video surveillance systems.

It works this way: a school buys the onsite hardware, which may include access control readers, video cameras and printers for badges and access cards. The hardware connects to an Internet Protocol (IP) network — the school’s computer network. From there, an Internet browser can access an SaaS system such as Brivo’s.

“SaaS websites like ours hide complexity,” says Van Till. “Managing any of these systems online is about as simple as an e-commerce transaction.”

By following prompts, you can create and print access cards and badges. You can program the cards to provide access during certain hours, depending on the employee. When someone quits or is terminated, you can deactivate the card.

Meanwhile, the SaaS service provides support. It maintains and updates the access control and intrusion alarm, visitor management and video management software. It buys and operates sophisticated database management equipment that stores the access profiles for everyone in your building or the school district. It backs up all of your data at remote systems. And it secures the system against viruses and hackers.

Controlling who can and cannot enter a building underpins the security of students, faculty, staff and community members who happen to be using the school building. Of course, school administrators want to promote the free movement of students in school. Administrators also want to welcome parents and community members to the facility.

Getting access control right can do both: it can promote free but safe movement of students, faculty and staff, while ensuring that visitors have legitimate reasons for being in the school.