Better key control could boost school security

Security in schools has reached critical mass. Whether the issue is theft or, worse yet, a catastrophic tragedy, no superintendent wants to find out the assailant had a key to the door. Yet key control remains an elusive and ambiguous subject, often relegated to maintenance. That’s not how it should be, as key control can play a critical role in your school’s security.

Today, a majority of schools use a system known as “interchangeable core” with non-restricted keyways, in which the locks and keys are seldom accountable. In these systems, key duplication—along with lost user and master keys—can call into question the basic security of the school. Few, if any, administrators are aware of this problem; they often assume—incorrectly—that locking the door has created a secure facility.

Administrators in every school district should ask themselves these basic questions:

• Do you know everyone who has the keys to each and every door in the district?

• Can you be sure a user key, or even a master key, has not been duplicated without proper authorization?

• What do you do when a master key is lost or stolen?

If you do not have the answers to these questions, or if the answers leave you wondering how secure your schools are, then key control is a subject that must be addressed. Knowing who has the keys to which doors is an issue every school system should consider important.

Over the last 80 years or so, very little has changed with the basic technology behind the “pin tumbler” lock. In some school districts, a master key from 30 years ago would still open many doors. Lately, however, there have been product innovations that provide solutions to the issue of key control.

Some school districts are evaluating card access systems. While these systems are effective for high-volume entry points where it is important to know who entered a particular door at what time, they are cost prohibitive as a solution for total key control and not generally necessary on most doors.

One of the most important new innovations in the industry is the “user rekeyable” restricted keyway systems that are now available. These systems offer a number of very important features—for example, the ability to repin a lock simply by turning a key in the door.

When evaluating a key control system, ask yourself the following questions:

• Can the lock be rekeyed at the master level without affecting any of the user-level keys?

• Is every key serial numbered and assigned to a single user? And can you account for every key at all times?

• Is the key totally restricted and unavailable except through controlled sources, making key duplication impossible?

• Can the lock be rekeyed in seconds without swapping out a core or removing a cylinder from the door?

• Is there a computerized records management program for the system, and is the administration accountable for key control?

If the answers to any of these questions is “no,” you must assume that your system is antiquated and vulnerable to security breach. To illustrate the situation faced by most school districts, consider the following set of situations using a 10-key scenario.

Situation: 10 keys remain 10 keys. Every key in a system must be identified and assigned to a specific key holder. In many systems, these keys are not uniquely identified. In these systems, a user generally initials a line confirming that they have been given “a” key.

Problem: In any system where each key is not uniquely identified by a serial number, the system administrator is left to wonder who actually holds what key, and which doors this key will open. In other words, there is no “system status.” In these systems, key control often is reduced to a looseleaf notebook and a pile of work orders in the maintenance department

Solution: A controlled key system would identify each key with a unique serial number. This number allows an administrator to identify every user to a specific key. The system also identifies every key to every door. Through the use of this system, a school district introduces the concept of accountability to the key holder. Once a key holder understands that he is responsible for a specific key, he tends to place a higher importance on that key. Additionally, these systems tend to be backed by a database program that tracks the system’s status. Without this type of administrative capability, few schools can be certain of their system status.

Situation: 10 keys becomes 9 keys. The loss of a key is a security breach. In order to eliminate the breach, the lock must be changed. The decision to rekey must be made quickly, and with security in mind. Too often, the decision to rekey is balanced against the cost of the repinning. When a school administrator is faced with a lost key, his decisions should be based solely on the safety and security of the school and its attendees.

Problem: In a traditional interchangeable core system, rekeying a door is accomplished by swapping out cores. This requires the facility to own additional hardware or cores. Generally, a school owns enough additional cores to accommodate approximately 10 percent of the school’s doors. In this system, security is based on the random distribution of cores. This system’s major flaw is evident when a master key is lost. In an interchangeable core system, the loss of a master key results in a security breach of all affected doors. In nearly all cases, this also affects the additional cores, making the swapping of cores useless. In this case, the entire system must be repinned. This expensive and time-consuming procedure is one that most administrators and maintenance staffs dread. In fact, many times the school administrator simply holds his breath, hoping that the event will pass without incident.

Solution: There are systems available in which the lock can be repinned simply by turning another key in the door. One system actually allows the master key to be changed without affecting any of the user-level keys. In these systems, the act of re-keying the door is as simple as inserting the next “step” key and turning the lock. No time, no fuss, with only the expense of a key! The decision to repin a large number of doors should be made with security in mind, not a school’s budget. With these “user rekeyable” systems, a facility can be repinned at the master level without affecting the user level. Simply insert the new master key in the affected doors and turn—simple, fast, and economical.

Situation: 10 keys become 11 keys. Key duplication is the current hot button in the industry. Unfortunately, there is no control or regulation governing the duplication of keys. The fact is that most of the key blanks used in schools today are readily available at any hardware store or locksmith shop, regardless of the words “Do not duplicate” stamped on the key.

Problem: Whether the issue is a lost key or simply convenience, many teachers, staff members, and sometimes even students can have a duplicate key cut. Restricted keyways are the answer. Many systems currently touted as restricted are really “distribution restricted.” In fact, these blanks often are available on the internet or through a catalog.

Solution: Truly restricted keyways are the only answer to unauthorized key duplication. There are very few truly restricted keyways. Some firms have tried unsuccessfully to patent keyways. A school district must be very careful when choosing a restricted keyway. A close examination of who else has the keyway and where the keys are available is necessary to avoid this threat.

Ultimately, school districts will spend millions of dollars updating security in their schools. Closed circuit television cameras, card access systems, metal detectors, identification badges, and a host of other precautionary measures may be added in the name of safety and security. All the while, many of these schools will not even be sure who has the key to the front door. n

J. Peter Guidi is director of education sales and marketing for Shield Security Systems, developers of InstaKey technology. He can be reached at (800) 316-5397 or

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