Creating Safer and More Efficient Schools With Biometric Technologies


The events of the last five years make one issue of paramount importance to parents, teachers and school administrators: safety. While technology cannot provide a panacea for all such concerns - particularly those related to internal threats - it can be used to enhance security, access control and communications within schools. These safety technologies should be used in conjunction with, not instead of, proven early interventions and preventive measures such as conflict resolution, bullying prevention and proactive outreach programs.

Developing a Meaningful Security Program

Metal detectors have become increasingly common at schools in large urban districts, particularly at the higher grade levels in which 10% or more of the schools nationwide currently use such detectors (CDC 2001). Parents and community pressure will ensure that the use of such weapon-scanning technology continues to increase and expand to more schools and lower grade levels.

Another safety technology that has been around for a while is video surveillance systems. Recent advances in digital technologies have lowered the cost and complexity of such systems, making all-digital video solutions attainable for more districts. In a digital system, video images are recorded on large hard drives, eliminating the need for unreliable tapes and making it easier to view and work with footage.

However, video surveillance systems may provide an exaggerated sense of security, so it is important to remember their limitations. First, the cameras only cover small areas of the building. While it may be useful to post cameras at a school's main entry points, providing comprehensive coverage of an entire building can be quite costly and complex, requiring multiple cameras, as well as extensive wiring, storage and viewing capabilities. The second limitation of such a system is that it is not inherently preventive in nature. The presence of many cameras in a school in and of itself d'es not significantly enhance security other than providing a measure of symbolic deterrence.

To really have an impact, surveillance cameras must be a part of a meaningful security program. At its most stringent, such a program would involve real-time monitoring by one or more administrators, school resource officers or security guards. These officials would need to spend a considerable amount of time scanning the output of multiple cameras and possess the ability to respond quickly to any disturbance - steps that are obviously not practical, nor desirable, for most districts.

The other option (and the one used by most schools) is to simply record the cameras' images for later review. This system may be useful for pinpointing student perpetrators of disruptive behavior and providing a record of any intrusion or infraction, but it will not deliver real-time security enhancement.

Advances in Biometrics

The most significant advances in school security technology are in the field of biometrics - the process of positive identification through the scanning of unique body characteristics such as fingerprints, eyes, facial features or voice patterns. A few school districts have begun using biometrics for certain applications. The School District of Philadelphia began using finger scanning last year instead of time clocks to track the work hours of some of its employees (Borja 2002). A small number of educational institutions have also begun using biometric identification systems for student cafeteria purchases.

Another increasingly common application is the use of low-end biometric identification systems to authenticate users on educational networks in place of the traditional use of passwords. This involves using relatively inexpensive peripheral fingerprint readers that connect to existing computers, or finding one of the few manufacturers that have started integrating such readers into their products.

Still, the greatest potential for biometrics in enhancing the school environment is in providing access control, positive identification and a record of those entering and leaving school buildings. Some higher education institutions and a handful of K-12 schools from around the world have implemented comprehensive access control and identification systems using biometrics (Nixon 2003; Johnson & Wales University's Media Center 2002).

Maturing Technology

Biometric technology has matured considerably in the last five years, with accuracy rates going up and costs coming down. Iris-recognition systems may have the highest reliability rate (with some manufacturers claiming accuracy in excess of 99%) and, like the less accurate fingerprint authentication systems, have now reached commodity-level pricing. Thus, it has become realistic to consider implementing biometrics on a systemwide basis in schools. It is also undeniable that a reliable access control and identification system combined with effective entry policies will substantially enhance the security of any school environment.

With an increased emphasis on safety and accountability in schools, biometric technology will become de rigueur in the coming decade. Privacy concerns may put a damper on acceptance rates, but should not prevent this technology from reaching its full potential in security enhancements. Educational institutions already hold responsibility for various sensitive data such as social security numbers and special needs information. Biometric systems simply add extra identifying information to this cache of personal data.

Hopefully, with the continued implementation of such systems, fears of identifying information misuse will be offset by the benefit of enhanced accountability, along with the observation of proper precautions to ensure such information is not used inappropriately or disclosed to third parties.

"Bridging" technologies also exist, such as systems based on identification cards with bar code, magnetic or "smart card" capabilities. Schools that do not yet have the community or financial support needed for a biometric system can look at enhancing security through such systems as an interim step. But, basic card identification systems may be susceptible to unauthorized reproduction and have limited functionality.

The most sophisticated nonbiometric identification systems use smart cards, which are cards embedded with a small programmable chip. These cards can hold a substantial amount of data and can be reprogrammed or recharged depending on the application. Though, the system has the inherent weakness that cards can be damaged, lost, stolen or used by others. Biometric systems overcome this concern, however, as users carry their unique identifying characteristics with them at all times.

Big Brother Protection

The key to the success of any biometric system is the maintenance of a controlled environment. Building access must be limited to one or several main entrances, particularly in off-hours. Those entryways will be equipped with biometric scanners (e.g., eye, facial or hand recognition systems) that will verify the identity of all students, staff and authorized visitors. Secondary uses such as cafeteria debiting, library checkout and student attendance also can be implemented using the same system.

In the near future, students may also use their biometric characteristics to authenticate themselves on the school network so that their portable computing devices will gain access to digital resources the moment they begin their school day. In addition, this computer-based identification may make other types of scanning unnecessary by establishing student attendance upon logging on to a wireless network.

Biometric systems will not prevent violence and threats, but the creation of a controlled environment to which only authorized personnel have access enables other security measures to be more effective and important. A centralized access control system would also make it possible to "lock down" part or all of a school in a crisis situation.

Sound too much like a Big Brother scenario? Remember that in the end, schools are protected, controlled environments designed for safe learning and growth; not microcosms of society as a whole. As society continues to change and become more safety conscious, biometrics will also gain a strong foothold in the commerce, governmental and public arenas - making school applications seem much less unusual and intrusive. In addition, biometric technologies will provide enhanced security and accountability for the benefit of students, parents and staff members. For this reason, school constituents' demands for security enhancements will offset privacy concerns, which seems like a small price to pay in order to foster a safer learning environment.


Borja, R. 2002. "Finger-Scanning Technology Monitors School Employees." Education Week 23 Oct.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2001. "School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000." Journal of School Health 71 (7).

Johnson & Wales University's Media Center. 2002. "Denver is First University in Colorado to Utilize Biometrics to Gain Access to Dorm Rooms." 21 Nov.

Nixon, S. 2003. "School Roll Could Be Replaced With Eye Scan." The Sydney Morning Herald 8 March.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.