How Facial Recognition Can Provide Secure Access for K-12 Schools
Advanced technology like facial recognition can streamline campus access in a secure fashion
- By Mike Vance
- April 01, 2019
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
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
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 & Life Safety.