New Jersey Schools Adopt RFID to Secure Their Facilities

By Claire Swedberg

The Belleville School District is deploying active tags and readers to track the locations of all personnel and students within its schools and on its buses, as well as at "blue light" telephones on the campuses.

New Jersey's Belleville Public School District is implementing an active radio frequency identification solution to locate students and faculty members within its schools, as well as students on its 21 buses. The technology is being implemented as part of an extensive security system that the district believes will make its students and staff some of the best-protected in the United States. The use of RFID, cameras with built-in analytic software, and a new phone system—as well as the posting of armed officers and a new director of security—is intended to prevent tragedies like the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Ct., and to provide location data for use in generating attendance reports, or during a problem such as a medical emergency or fight.

The solution, which is being installed by Clarity Systems Consulting Group a computer services company located in Mine Hill, N.J., consists of 433 MHz active RFID hardware and software supplied by Wade Garcia and Associates, an RFID systems provider based in San Antonio, Texas. Wade Garcia develops active 433 MHz tags and corresponding readers that operate via the company's own proprietary air-interface protocol.

Mike Wade

Initially, to address security problems following the Newtown shooting, the district hired armed safety officers and a security director, and then employed Clarity to conduct an audit to identify any security weaknesses that might exist within its facilities. As a result of that audit, says Joe Longo, a member of Belleville's school board, the district opted to install a single solution consisting of cameras, telephones within each room, access control for employees and middle- and high-school students, and active RFID tags, all of which will be managed by software integrated and installed by Clarity.

Bruce Kreeger, Clarity's CTO and president, says the need for RFID became apparent once it was determined that the use of cameras and phones still allowed some vulnerability. For one thing, he explains, cameras cannot always make it possible to identify who is in a particular image. For another, personnel lack the time to scrutinize every photo to determine who is where. In addition, he says, if a shooter were to enter a classroom, the teacher would not have time to pick up a phone. RFID would, however, enable the district to locate any individual in real time, while a "panic button" on a teacher's RFID badge would ensure that a distress signal could be sent quickly.

Therefore, the district is installing 190 readers throughout its schools, and plans to provide RFID tags to its 600 staff members and 4,800 students. RFID readers are also being installed on its 21 buses, each with GPS units to identify the location of each tag read, and to forward that data to the software residing on the district's database via a cellular connection.

Staff members' tags come with two buttons. Pressing one of the buttons, Kreeger explains, indicates that help is required (the software can forward an alert to employees onsite), while the other signals a 911-level event (such as a shooter being in a room), and can also trigger a call to police and other emergency services. Staff members' tags, as well as those of middle- and high-school students, will also come with passive low-frequency (LF) RFID inlays to enable access control. Teachers, for example, could use the LF inlays to enter restricted areas, while older students would utilize the proximity function to access bathrooms. If an excessive number of students attempted to enter the bathrooms, they could be denied entrance. Moreover, the software could identify if the same individuals were repeatedly visiting the bathrooms simultaneously, possibly suggesting a drug-use or fighting issue.

Each active-tag reader captures the ID number of every badge within range, and transmits that information to the Wade Garcia software. The badge's active tag is typically set to beacon its ID number every 28 seconds. In the system's software, a tag's ID is linked to the name of the individual assigned to that badge, as well as to some details, such as whether he or she is a student or staff member—and, if that person is a student, his or her grade level. The district can then log into the software at any time and view the locations of specific individuals on the premises. For example, if a parent arrives to pick up a child for a doctor's appointment, staff members can sign into the software and determine in which room that student is located. Employees can also use the software to ascertain where an individual has been throughout the day, or at any given time within the past 30 days, says Mike Wade, the owner of Wade Garcia and Associates' owner.

Each bus will be equipped with two cameras, along with an RFID reader with a GPS unit and wireless modem, that will send read data back to the system's software. In that way, the district knows who is on that bus, as well as at what location each child entered and exited the vehicle. The driver will also wear the RFID badge on a lanyard equipped with panic buttons.

Finally, the school is installing emergency "blue light" telephones (a blue light is installed above a phone, indicating that emergency calls can be placed at the location) around its campus, so that students could instantly contact 911 in the event of an emergency. An RFID reader will be installed on each phone, in order to identify the active tag IDs of all students and personnel in the immediate area, thereby allowing the software to determine who is in the vicinity of the emergency, or is placing the call.

What's more, Wade adds, if a fight or injury has occurred, or if a parent is concerned that a child might not be in class, for example, the software can be used to indicate where that individual was and when. To ensure that every student and staff member brings the tag to school on a daily basis, an employee will check the tags as each person enters. Any students who forgot their tags could then be sent to the office to acquire a temporary replacement.

According to Longo, the technology may also eliminate the need for teachers to take attendance at the beginning of each class. That, he estimates, could save six or seven minutes of teaching time per class. The district's priority, however, is to provide a safe school setting. "My message is simple," Longo states. "As a board member, I never want to have to explain to a parent [after an emergency event] that we could have done more." The technology will be fully installed in about one month, he notes, adding, "By the time we're done, I believe we will be able to claim we are the most secure school district in the country."

The Spring Independent School District installed Wade Garcia's RFID technology at its schools in 2006, beginning with Wunsche High School. This replaced an existing passive RFID solution that failed to provide the location granularity the school district required. The district now knows when every student and staff member arrives at one of the campuses, where each individual moves throughout the day and when he or she exits the building, explains Ringo Tseng, Wade Garcia's VP. The cards also come with a bar-coded ID number printed on the front that can be scanned at the library and cafeteria. When that occurs, the scanned ID is again sent to the system's software, where the bar-coded ID is linked to that particular student. The system then forwards that data to the school's existing management software for library checkout information, or for school lunch payments.

The Spring Independent School District is currently in the process of installing the technology on buses, as well to capture a record of which students are on which of its 200 buses at all times. The Texas district is tracking approximately 30,000 students using 602 readers; its staff declined to comment for this story. A private school in New York is also installing the technology for the current school year, Wade says, though that school has asked to remain unnamed.