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Saving Time and Simplifying Processes with Key Cabinets in a Texas School District

School buildings are rarely purely educational facilities, instead they serve whole communities, with church group meetings, sporting events, theatrical performances, and other activities. This makes access control a continuing challenge, especially for a large school district like Northwest Independent School District (ISD), which serves more than 30,000 students in 14 cities, towns, and communities across 234 square miles in Texas. The district was struggling to keep up with managing access for building rentals and community events. In their hunt for a solution, school officials decided to leverage a system they already had in place—intelligent key cabinets.

The schools had large Traka S-Series cabinets available for maintenance workers to be able to check out facility keys and to grant access to keys for rental scenarios, but the system wasn’t being leveraged to the fullest, says Mike Conklin, executive director for safety and security at Northwest ISD. The district expanded its use of the Traka key cabinets so now each school has a cabinet outside and visitors, maintenance, and law enforcement personnel can be granted access rights without a school employee needing to be on-site.

The V-Series cabinets, which are integrated with the district’s Motorola access control management system, update instantaneously so they reflect the most recent access management rights changes, such as when someone renting the facility broke a key off in the lock and needed quick access to a spare key.

The system enables school officials to address access situations remotely, without needing to travel across the vast district to unlock a door. In one instance, a school resource officer at a middle school forgot his badge and keys at home. The Traka system sent an unauthorized access attempt alert to Conklin, who could pull up surveillance camera coverage at the key cabinet to assess the situation. After calling to confirm who the officer was and why he was trying to enter the building, Conklin remotely released a key to the officer and saved a school employee a trip to the facility.

The keys are all under curfew, so the school security team gets an alert if a key is not returned by midnight that day so Conklin or another school security team member can follow up. The team gets another alert when an overdue key is returned. This system leads to a better recovery rate for keys than under other, less automated systems, Conklin says.

One major reason to adopt the key cabinet system was to establish a more proactive security approach when it comes to working with law enforcement and other first responders.

Law enforcement officials were given access fobs, which grant them access to the school buildings 24 hours a day and enable them to open a Traka cabinet to get five sets of master keys to the school.

“Having the type of system where one key is going to open every door in that building is huge,” Conklin says. “There are still school districts that might have portions of their building keyed one way and portions of the building keyed to another. Knowing that one key out of that box in any one of those five positions will open all the areas is a time saver, especially if you’re waiting on a first responder.”

This system helps Northwest ISD get ahead of emerging legislation in Texas, says Conklin. Currently, first responders need key box access to keys for school buildings, but many of these tools are designed for fire departments. Police usually don’t have the same access rights, which could lead to delays in obtaining keys during an emergency. The use of those key boxes also lacks some accountability and an audit trail, Conklin says.

In addition, school security legislation is in the spotlight in Texas after the 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, and additional regulations are likely forthcoming, such as requirements that schools provide first responders with access to schools and time to learn their way around the buildings. The Traka system puts Northwestern ISD ahead of the curve.

“When we do our lockdown drills, we invite all of our first responders and law enforcement,” Conklin says. “What the neat thing now is I used to carry a bunch of extra keys in my bag, and so did some of my other staff. Now that we have the Traka boxes, when all the police show up, they can let themselves in, pull the keys out, and hand them to all the other officers. When we simulate a lockdown, they have the master keys to go in and unlock all the doors in a systematic clearing of the building.”

The system also enables a closer personal connection between law enforcement officials and the school district. Police who have an access fob are invited to stop by Northwest ISD schools to take their lunch breaks, use the restroom while they are on patrol overnight, or to take shelter in school buildings during severe weather. Because some areas of the school district are very remote, with few open facilities available for patrolling officers, this can be a reliable refuge while ensuring they are more familiar with the schools’ layouts in the event of an emergency, Conklin adds. In addition, if a fob gets lost, it’s much easier to deactivate it remotely than having to weigh unauthorized access risks against the cost of rekeying a facility.

When we simulate a lockdown, they have the master keys to go in and unlock all the doors in a systematic clearing of the building.

From an emergency management perspective, the system reduced the amount of work and coordination that Cody Powell, emergency management coordinator for Wise County, Texas, needs to accomplish on a regular basis. If the school district adds some new portable buildings, they add those keys to the cabinet, and nothing needs to change from the first responder’s point of view, he says.

“There’s a lot of reasons why that’s valuable,” Powell explains. “One: the list of people that you would normally need to notify if there’s a change, that goes away. It takes away a lot of work on their end. It takes away a lot of work on my end through the coordination element, making sure everybody has the most updated keys and maps. The process becomes very, very seamless.”

For a school district that crosses three different counties, this single point of coordination is invaluable and reduces the chance of miscommunication about access rights and procedures.

The goal is to simplify processes and save time, Powell says. “That’s a problem anyone in our field deals with—what is your process? We will rework in my office an entire process from beginning to end to remove one step if we figure it’s a problem through an after-action,” he explains. “Every time you can remove a step from any process whatsoever, you’re buying yourself time in an incident.… One simple step that was removed in an incident may sound small, but those add up over time. Simplicity and ease of use are always highly sought after.”


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Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email at [email protected]