Selecting the Right Surveillance for Your School
When it comes to security upgrades, integration and education are enabling school security leaders to shop around.
As grants, bonds and other funding sources become more readily available for K-12 school districts to invest in security measures, school security professionals’ wish lists become both longer and more feasible.
According to Paul Timm, president of school security consultancy firm RETA Security, the top four surveillance trends that school security officials are pursuing are: sharing video access with local law enforcement; improving video quality; increasing video storage capacity by switching from DVRs to NVRs; and focusing on integrated security programs, instead of just standalone systems.
School leadership – even outside security, he says – is learning that they cannot rely on a decade-old security system to provide the evidence, insight and protection that schools need today.
Ken Jacobs, Director of Technology for Lincoln Park Public Schools in Michigan, used some federal funding the district had received to upgrade surveillance and add door buzzers with surveillance and intercom capabilities at all main entrances. The main goal was to improve student safety inside the school facilities, while building up an infrastructure backbone that could eventually support additional surveillance cameras on the exterior of the buildings, he says.
Before the upgrade, school officials would need to bring in several teachers to view video to assess exactly which red-shirted student was the one pictured in the grainy video of an incident. Now, utilizing Samsung IP video cameras and ExacqVision video management software, school staff can use the system to decrease or reassign hall liaisons to problem areas of the school, and instead of requiring them to patrol multiple areas, the cameras can be used to monitor more places at once, Jacobs says.
In addition, the district’s maintenance director can access the cameras remotely to verify alarm notifications, saving him trips to the school for false alarms at night, or enabling him to call for help in the event of an incident.
Mobile access to video surveillance is also helping staff at the Sands CISD in Ackerly, Texas, to monitor access and facility use. If motion is detected in the building between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., for example, a text message can be sent to school personnel to evaluate via video whether the situation is acceptable or not. According to Sands CISD Superintendent Wayne Henderson, “There is a state highway five miles up from our schools, and you never know who will walk up. This puts us at ease now. We can’t put a bubble around the school,” he says, but the technology helps to fuel the school’s awareness of potential risks.
Sands CISD worked closely with their integrator, Responsive Services International Corp. (RSI, Inc.), to tailor-fit the solution (consisting of ISONAS access control, Milestone video management and MOBOTIX cameras) to the school. The school district also integrated the voice over IP (VoIP) telephone solution into the security system, so when an individual presses the intercom button at the school’s front entrance, their image appears on the computer screen of an administrator, who can verify and authorize entry.
“RSI did most of the legwork to mix and match a system that would fit our needs most,” says Henderson.
Upgrading video surveillance systems is easier said than done, though. The Sands CISD had to adjust camera views and expectations when taking unusual hallway layouts into account, and building up the infrastructure to gain more high-definition video was a challenge in Lincoln Park as well.
According to Timm, there are certainly benefits and pitfalls to upgrading video to IP and more integrated systems.
- Better forensics for both internal and external investigations
- Ease of use – Timm suggests that school districts look for systems with features that are easy to learn and use, so that those monitoring the system on a daily basis (often facilities managers or administrative assistants) can make the most of the investment.
- Incident command – Having a system that enables more people to access and use it builds redundancy into the user base, so if your school resource officer is not available, the video can still be accessed and used in a crisis.
- Upgrading systems without investing in training, education and awareness
- Upgrading in one fell swoop – “Upgrades should be a continuous process,” says Timm, and schools should prioritize their upgrades and installations to meet the needs of the school as they evolve.
- Buyer’s remorse – Smart school districts are going to use “try-me programs,” says Timm. Test the new technology before investing millions of dollars in it, and avoid being a “beta test” school by discussing security technology with other school districts in your area, consultants, vendors, integrators, staff and even students. “Most students are not the perpetrators in school incidents, and most just want a safe learning environment,” he says. These students, if involved in a school safety planning team, may give school administrators insight into emerging problem areas, as well as potential solutions for them.
One of the main ways to avoid buyer’s remorse is to do some in-person research. John Pymm, the Director of Safety, Facilities and Operations for Bonneville Joint School District 93 in Idaho Falls, Idaho, accompanied his security integrator from AlphaCorp, Inc. to the ISC West tradeshow. “We were eager to find a much better solution to our surveillance problems,” he says. “I was as green as a willow stick, but even I could see the differences in video quality and engineering.”
After selecting AXIS Communications as the Bonneville district’s new surveillance provider, the district hired Andrew Bodily as its Senior LAN Technician. Bodily underwent AXIS’s “boot camp” training session, learning about networking, camera placement and selection, which enabled him to take over many of an integrator’s duties within the district, says Pymm. With this insight, the district replaced four analog cameras in the high school commons with just two IP cameras, upgraded any remaining analog cameras with encoders, and programmed new pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras to follow a search pattern to continually scan an area.
At the Mansfield ISD just south of Arlington, Texas, a 2011 bond gave the school district’s police department the funding it needed to install video surveillance and access control in all of its buildings and facilities; however, this meant that the district needed to dramatically update its video storage capabilities. When the original plan for a virtual server in a centralized location fell through, Lt. Greg Minter started looking for alternatives, eventually settling on installing individual servers at each facility to fit the requirements the district wanted.
“Don’t dive into the deep end before seeing if there are any rocks you might hit,” Minter says. “We requested a demo server (from BCDVideo), built the way we wanted in terms of frames per second, compression and 30 days of storage. The virtual server was giving us lag time on live video as our overnight archiving kept overlapping into daytime activity. We wanted to test whether or not the new server would keep up with our needs, which it did.”
He had also brought in six different software manufacturers to test VMS systems, and did research on who else is using different cameras and products. In the end, there were 1,700 cameras installed throughout the district (mostly Bosch and Panasonic IP surveillance cameras, Minter says), which provided system access both at the 24/7 police dispatch center and to administrators, but just for their facilities.
The cameras have solved a lot of crimes, says Minter, especially copper thefts. The surveillance system also helps district police to investigate parking lot incidents, monitor “hot areas” of the schools, and add evidence to incident reports.
“About any crime you can think of that would take place in a municipality can take place in a school district,” says Minter. “The cameras substantiate what the victim says took place, and help us track back to the perpetrator.” In a hit-and-run on school property, for example, the cameras can be used to verify that the victim’s car was indeed damaged on school property, and the video can be utilized to identify the other driver. Alternately, the video could be used to show that the car was damaged before it arrived on school property.
All in all, the district came in under budget on the initial installation, even when adding in panic buttons in every office, key card readers and access controlled vestibules. Some of the leftover funds were saved to adjust the school system as needs arose, but that doesn’t mean that the district will be resting on familiarity with its technology.
“We’re continuously looking at technology to see what fits our needs. In the four years since our 2012 installation, technology has changed, so we’re requesting demo cameras and testing analytics… If a company won’t give you a demo of a feature or product, move on to someone who will,” Minter adds.
Frequently Forgotten Areas for School Surveillance
Hallways and entryways are some of the most obvious areas for school video surveillance, but according to Keith Jentoft, President of wireless camera company Videofied, there are quite a few high-value areas of schools that are often overlooked when investing in surveillance, either for the cost of installation or infrequent use. However, these places often hold expensive equipment, and schools should keep them in mind when determining security investments, he says:
- HVAC tunnels or access points
- School storage areas for athletic equipment, computers or audio/visual equipment
- Nurses’ offices
- Press boxes at arenas or sporting fields