How Facial Recognition Can Provide Secure Access for K-12 Schools

How Facial Recognition Can Provide Secure Access for K-12 Schools

Advanced technology like facial recognition can streamline campus access in a secure fashion

Keeping students and staff safe while they’re at school is critically important for public, private, and charter school leaders—and controlling who has access to the building is a fundamental element of any school safety plan. As K-12 leaders look for ways to secure their facilities and ensure that only authorized visitors can enter, a growing number are turning to AI-powered facial recognition technology for this task.

With the tragic events at Sandy Hook, Parkland, and other school communities lingering in everyone’s minds, many schools have installed access control systems that require an office employee to grant access to parents and other visitors by pressing a button that unlocks the front gate or door. But most schools that have adopted this approach have found it to be a cumbersome and labor-intensive solution. A buzzer system has to be constantly monitored, because parents are frequently dropping their children off late or picking them up early—and other visitors constantly come and go throughout the school day.

Facial recognition technology can help streamline this process. It works seamlessly and unobtrusively for both visitors and school employees, cutting the amount of time that office staff must spend on letting people into the building.

Using a school’s existing IP cameras, the software scans the face of someone approaching the front door and compares it to a database of authorized visitors. If a match is found, the system unlocks the door automatically: this process takes less than a second. If no match is found, then the person would press the doorbell and be admitted into the school manually as before.

Aside from saving time and streamlining access control, a facial recognition system can identify known threats and alert officials in real time, before the person who is considered a possible security risk even reaches the front door.

Schools can upload the photos of people who should be put on a watch list, such as registered sex offenders, persons with a restraining order, or parents who don’t have visitation rights to a child, for instance. When those individuals approach the building, the system will detect their presence and send a pop-up message or voice alert to administrators—or even the police.

University Child Development School (UCDS) and St. Therese Catholic Academy, two private schools in Seattle, are among the dozens of schools that have installed state-of-the-art facial recognition systems to control visitor access and head off potential threats—and their use of the technology has reduced anxiety among students, parents, and staff alike.

Despite its promise, facial recognition technology can raise privacy concerns among parents, staff, and other stakeholders. It must be implemented thoughtfully, with the support of the school community. This article looks at the experience of UCDS and St. Therese Academy in more detail, and it discusses what K-12 leaders must do to make facial recognition technology work as a secure access control solution for their schools.

Facial Recognition in Action

At UCDS in Seattle’s busy University District, parents and visitors used to have to wait for a staff member to buzz them in through the front gate during school hours. Last spring, the school installed a facial recognition system to control guest entry using the camera mounted above the gate. If the software recognizes a parent’s face, the gate opens instantly.

“It’s very convenient,” one parent told the Seattle Times. “It feels safe.”

UCDS administrators also view the software as an additional layer of security and convenience. Before installing the program, they were having problems managing visitor traffic. The gate’s buzzer seemed to go off constantly, and someone always had to be there to respond. Now, there is still someone in the front office to greet people, but there are significantly fewer interruptions from the gate’s buzzer— and staff members can focus their attention on other tasks as well.

School leaders were very deliberate in sending information about the system to parents before installing it, and they gave parents a choice in whether to add their face to the database. More than 300 parents in a school with 325 students opted in.

St. Therese Catholic Academy, which serves 150 students and has 30 staff members, also uses facial recognition technology to manage access to its building. St. Therese equipped two of its five entrances with IP cameras and registered all staff in the system, and parents have the option of joining as well. Principal Matthew DeBoer notes that since the school has installed the system, staff and students feel safer, which helps them focus on teaching and learning.

Both schools are using SAFR (Secure, Accurate Facial Recognition) software from RealNetworks, which uses machine-learning techniques to detect and match millions of faces in real time, with a proven accuracy rate of 99.8 percent. RealNetworks offers SAFR to any school in the United States or Canada free of charge.

All facial images are encrypted to ensure user privacy, and all images are stored locally on the schools’ servers and remain under the control of the schools. An important thing to note is that neither UCDS nor St. Therese is using facial recognition technology to identify and authenticate students; in fact, SAFR’s algorithms include age detection technology, and the software is programmed to prevent children from even registering with the system. Administrators can enter staff members into the system by uploading their photos in batches and adding an identification for each one. Parents can use a self-service kiosk to scan their face, type in their name, and request to be added to the database.

Strategies for Success

As schools implement facial recognition technology as a means of providing secure building access control, K-12 leaders will need to establish clear policies and procedures to ensure the privacy and security of facial data. Thoughtful planning is essential, as is choosing the right facial recognition tool to meet the community’s needs. Here are four key strategies for success.

Engage with the community. Because facial recognition can be controversial, leaders must engage with all stakeholder groups— including students, teachers, parents, and administrators—to discuss what they are hoping to accomplish and gather input from the community. Schools are likely to run into trouble if they install the system without explaining what they’re trying to do and without co-designing the solution with their community. Savvy K-12 leaders will make sure they understand everyone’s concerns and design a system based on the needs of everyone involved.

Choose the right solution. The facial recognition solution that school leaders choose should integrate not only with existing IP cameras, but also with whatever access control system the school is already using. It should also have an extremely high accuracy rate that has been verified through independent testing, including the ability to recognize faces from different races, genders, or ethnicities with precision.

At St. Therese Academy, more than 90 percent of the students are students of color—and parents were concerned that there would be some racial bias in the system. However, SAFR was ranked fourth in the world by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for its lack of racial bias. The community decided that SAFR was the right solution for them, and so to date the system has worked flawlessly.

Respect users’ privacy. Because schools own the facial recognition data, it’s up to each school to set its own policies for how this information will be used. In collaboration with their community, K-12 leaders should draft clear policies that explain how the data will be used in a way that respects each person’s privacy. Parents should be given the choice to opt into the system—and if the biometric information will be used for any purpose other than authenticating the identity of someone trying to access the school, then parents should have the opportunity to provide their expressed approval or disapproval.

Use best practices for data storage and retention. K-12 leaders must be responsible stewards of any biometric data and should take appropriate precautions in safeguarding the integrity of this information. For instance, make sure servers and networks are protected behind a firewall. Restrict access to a limited number of administrators. Make sure passwords are strong, change them periodically, and don’t write them down or share them with others. Periodically review policies and test the security of data systems to make sure they are sound. And only keep the data for as long as it’s needed. When the child of a parent no longer attends the school, delete the parent’s image.

Facial recognition technology is not a panacea, and it’s only as effective as the leaders who put it into practice. Success requires a thoughtful approach that is undertaken in collaboration with the entire school community. But when implemented well, facial recognition can be a secure and convenient way to control access to school buildings and protect against known security threats.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.


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