The large ring of keys dangling from the waist, long a janitorial status symbol in public schools, may soon be replaced by keyless entry systems that allow teachers and staff to open doors by waving ID cards.
During a trial run starting this month, Harford County plans to equip three schools with proximity card readers to test whether the technology should be used countywide.
"I've been in schools so many times and could walk right in and have my will about the school, and I don't think that's where we want to be," said Thomas L. Fid- ler, a school board member. "I'm hoping that these three schools will show us how to improve, perhaps ultimately, how we move kids in and out of schools."
If Harford decides to use the technology more widely, it would become the first jurisdiction in Maryland and one of only a handful of school systems nationwide to do so.
The change would make security at Harford schools perhaps the tightest in the Baltimore region. Several county schools already lock the front door at all times and use a security camera and intercom to grant access.
Testing the access cards comes one month after the school board approved $300,000 for a countywide visitor identification system that scans driver's licenses -- checking names against a list of convicted sex offenders -- and prints temporary photo ID badges.
Though schools across the nation have been re-evaluating security policies since the 1999 Columbine shootings, a growing emphasis on student test scores and cuts in safety budgets have caused security initiatives to regress in recent years, according to Kenneth Trump, president of a Cleveland-based national school safety consulting firm.
The Anne Arundel County school board approved a visitor ID system similar to Harford's, but it was eliminated from the budget last week by County Executive Janet S. Owens.
"The progress has stalled and is actually slipping backward," Trump said. "There's an enormous amount of pressure on school administrators to improve test scores and because of that, prevention and security planning efforts are taking a back seat to direct instructional efforts."
Robert A. Benedetto, Harford school system's coordinator of safety and security, said the keyless entry initiative and other safety measures are similar to that used by the school district in Spokane, Wash., which approved a high-tech system consisting of cameras and keyless doors in 2003.
The Lincoln, Neb., school system adopted card readers in a high school and administration building last year. Dennis Van Horn, superintendent of business affairs for Lincoln schools, said officials have been pleased with the results and will expand the effort.
"It's like a hotel key," said Van Horn. "If somebody loses a prox card, we just go into computer program and shut that card off. It's taken away all sorts of concerns, and allows us to monitor who's in and out of our buildings."
The technology is common at colleges and universities, as well as in business. But with many of those organizations moving toward biometric devices that scan hands and eyes, the cost of proximity or swipe card readers has been dropping. Now the product is trickling down to the grade school level across the country.
"These are security means that many office employees and other third-party entities use as means of security, and I think it's time we start looking down those paths," said Fidler, the Harford school board member.
The cards offer several advantages. Compare the ability to simply disable a missing card to spending possibly thousands of dollars to re-key an entire school when a set of keys is lost. Cards can be programmed to give employees access to specific areas, during specific times.
As at universities, the cards also can be used to purchase meals or borrow books from the library.
They aren't flawless, however. Civil liberties groups have complained that the cards can track a person's movement, and someone without a card can slip in a door behind someone.
"Any type of security technology is only as effective as the human element behind it," Trump said. "The first line of defense is a well-educated staff that greet and challenge strangers."
Harford's pilot program will take place at three schools -- Bel Air High, and Prospect Mill and Hickory elementaries. Main entrances would stay open, but frequently used side entrances would be locked, only accessible to staff members who have a card.
Officials will assess the results and make a recommendation on whether to expand the program. The school board could consider allocating money next fall in the budget for the 2007-08 school year.
"It's all a culture change, and it all comes down to awareness and training," Benedetto said. "We want to ensure a safe learning environment or our students and staff."