MIAMI — Many students will be wearing more than just new school clothes as they head back to classes this fall.
They will be wearing photo ID badges, small plastic cards that many school administrators say can help boost class attendance, discourage intruders on campus, and foster a greater sense of accountability among high school and middle school students.
The move is part of a nationwide effort by school administrators to find ways to beef up security in the wake of a particularly disturbing year of school shootings and other violent incidents on campuses.
Miami is one of the districts in the vanguard of the movement - one that raises questions about the tradeoff between protecting children and instilling a bunker mentality in schools.
School-safety and education experts warn that there is no easy answer to the question of how best to protect children from violence.
"Schools have traditionally been very safe places," says Barbara Wheeler, president of the National School Board Association in Alexandria, Va. "But there is a higher awareness that our world has changed and we want to make sure that the people who are in our [school] buildings belong in our buildings."
There are no recent statistics reflecting how many schools currently require students to wear photo ID badges. A 1993 survey found that roughly one-third of all schools required students to carry or wear photo ID.
Lawrence Levinson, president of Photo Scan Inc. of Morrisville, Pa., sells equipment to schools that allows them to make their own bar-coded ID cards. "Our business is increasing dramatically each year," he says, with sales to more than 40 new schools in the past year.
Administrators and other experts say that badges are increasingly being required in large urban schools that are experiencing problems with gang-related activity on school grounds and chronic truancy.
But even some smaller suburban schools are opting for badges, viewing it as one of many measures that might help bolster security and safety.
IN Miami, the nation's fourth-largest school district, administrators have begun a pilot program to assess the impact of requiring all students to wear photo identification cards to school. The project is taking place at a high school, a middle school, and two elementary schools. If successful, it could lead to a recommendation that all 300-plus schools in the Miami-Dade School District require students to wear ID badges to school. That would be more than 351,000 badges.
At present, 11 high schools and 13 middle schools in the Miami district require badges. Those decisions were made on a school-by-school basis.
Henry Fraid, Miami-Dade's deputy superintendent of schools, says that badges can help staff quickly identify student troublemakers in crowded common areas like a cafeteria and can help discourage outsiders from entering school grounds.
So far, there have been no complaints from students or parents at schools requiring the badges, Mr. Fraid says.
Some may view it as a small price to pay for an extra measure of security at school.
Holmes Braddock has spent 36 years on the Miami-Dade school board and has watched the district's schools change. He says he will wait for the results of the pilot program and public hearings before making a final decision about whether to require badges districtwide. But he says, so far, he likes the idea.
"The world is not the world it was 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "We didn't have the people running into schools and killing people, and the drugs. We did not worry about a lot of things back then that we have to worry about today," Mr. Braddock says.
Marjorie Walsleben, associate editor of the School Safety News Service at the National School Safety Center in West Lake Village, Calif., stresses that badges are only one option and says each school must develop its own safety plan.
While badges may be effective in keeping strangers out in one school district, she says, "No Trespassing" signs and locking certain doors may achieve the same goal at a different school.
"One of the things we caution about is for people to realize that there are no quick fixes," Ms. Walsleben says. "It is not good to imply that school uniforms, or badges, or weapons detectors will stop once and for all school violence. It is really a difficult issue."
"Our hope is that schools or school districts won't think that just by giving students ID cards and setting up metal detectors that they can now think they have an antiviolence plan," says David Kysilko, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va. "They don't replace the student-teacher communication and conflict-resolution instruction - trying to talk with kids to help them understand and prevent violence."
Not all student IDs being issued are aimed at improving school security. In Fort Myers, Fla., students at Riverdale High School are not required to wear their badges. But they use the bar-coded ID cards at the cafeteria lunch line, to gain entrance to sports events and other activities, to check out library books, to use the school media center, and to record attendance.
Richard Shafer, Riverdale's principal, says the ID cards are a sign of progress. "This is where we are moving into the computer age," he says.
Mr. Levinson says bar-coded ID cards can be used for an unlimited number of student activities. He adds that when the codes are entered into a database they could give staff members the ability to instantly check on the whereabouts of every student based on that student's computerized schedule.