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Budgets & Needs Determine Schools’ Video Surveillance

Educators faced with which cameras to use and where to place them

Schools and school districts that are in the market for video surveillance systems will acquire such systems based on their needs and their budgets, says an expert on school security.

A teacher at Westmoreland Children’s Center, a private school system in Bethesda, Md., watches the school’s security monitor, which shows the building’s exterior. by J.J. Smith

How much a school has to spend on a surveillance systems likely depends on factors that cannot be controlled by most local authorities, but the type of system that can be installed with the money available can be controlled by principals and other local authorities, says Peter Pochowski, the secretary of the National Association of School Safety & Law Enforcement Officials (NASSLEO). Deciding which system to acquire should start by a school—or school district—conducting a formal assessment of the buildings and grounds, he said. That assessment is to help officials determine the type of system that will fill the school’s needs, he adds.

To conduct such an assessment, a school—or school district—needs to organize a crisis management team that includes law enforcement officials, Pochowski said While there are plenty of reasons to include law enforcement in the crisis management team, when deciding on the type of surveillance system a school should acquire, that system should be linked to the local law enforcement agency, he said.


School systems generally do not have huge budgets to spend to deploy video surveillance everywhere in and around the school, so school officials have to prioritize, Pochowski said. The priority would be to deploy cameras in “the most dangerous areas of the school, the areas where there have been the most problems,” he said.

How the SAFE System works.
Once the most dangerous areas have been determined, where else to deploy cameras is up to the individual school, he said. However, while the details vary from school-toschool, there are some general areas of every school that needs to be covered by video surveillance, including the most heavily trafficked areas such as crowed or merging hallways, Pochowski said. On the other side of spectrum, the areas that are least traveled—“where adults generally don’t travel”—also needs to be monitored, he added.

In addition, when deciding where to place any video surveillance, schools officials should remember that cameras do two things. The first is to prevent things from happening because most people will not misbehave if they know they are on camera. The second thing is aimed at those individuals who do not care if cameras are present. For those people, cameras are to collect video is evidence.


Which system to purchase and where to deploy the cameras are not the only surveillance system issues that needs to be worked out by a school, Pochowski said. There are also policies and procedures that need to be in place, including informing the staff and students that cameras are monitoring their activities.

There are also laws governing the retention of video, he said. “Most states say (retain the evidence) seven years, which can create a financial burden for schools, especially those using analog equipment,” he said. School use of digital surveillance systems is growing, but even with digital equipment there is still a retention expense, he added.

Schools need to consult the legal staff over video retention requirements to find out if they only need to retain video of incidents, and if so, for how long does the school need to retain a “selected piece of video,” Pochowski said. The retention period can not only vary from state-to-state, but—in some cases—from school district-to-school district. “That’s a problem that needs to be clarified by the lawyers,” he said.


Of course there are different levels of surveillance systems schools can install, and all at linked to their costs. A system featured on the NASSLEO website is Logical Choice Technologies’ SAFE System, which not only enables teachers to call for help during an incident, it also actives a camera that can be installed in the room.

Nonetheless, because most teachers will go through their careers without having to deal with an incident, the SAFE system is designed to provide a school system with return on its investment. How the SAFE System does that, is it combines the alert system with a classroom address system to give the product everyday use, says John Graham, a Logical Choice Technologies’ ActivClassroom Consulting Engineer. The SAFE System was developed by Audio Enhancement, which worked with Panasonic on the system. It is comprised of a Panasonic pan tilt camera in the classroom, a monitoring station anywhere on the network, and a teardrop microphone that teachers wear.

Teachers at schools that have the SAFE System wear lapel microphones that are part of a voice enhancement system broadcasting to speakers positioned around the classroom. That enables a teacher to communicate softly, as opposed to having to raise his or her voice to talk to the students, he said.

However, if a classroom situation were to occur a teacher can immediately summon help by pressing a button on the lapel microphone, Graham said. Along with being able to sound an alert, each classroom can have a security camera, and should an alert be activated, the classroom camera begins recording audio and video. In addition, the main monitoring station located in the school’s administrative office not only records the video from the classroom, it also automatically sends out e-mails to the appropriate officials such as police, fire, emergency rescue, or parents, he said.

Because the SAFE System might be expensive for schools with tight budgets, Graham suggests school districts contact the federal government [“which sees the value of this system”], and has provided funding to schools that want to acquire the SAFE System, because “security in the classroom goes a long way.”


A less expensive alternative might be for a school that have analog system to enhance those systems by implementing a software upgrade, says Barbara Winkler-Chimbor, a director of market development for education for Genetec, a provider of unified security solutions that is also featured on the NASSLEO website.

Due to the budget constraints faced by public school districts, they struggle to get funding for security, so reusing existing video infrastructure might be an option for those schools, she said. That is where Genetec’s service can be of use, because the company provides a gradual migration to new IP security that enables schools to reuse much of their existing equipment, she added. While it is up to the school district to decide what kind of hardware they want to choose, Genetec is an “open platform” and is “not tied into a proprietary system, so they [schools] do not have to buy certain camera models, or any proprietary storage devices,” she said. Those devices can be either off the shelf Dell or HP servers, “it really doesn’t matter because we [Genetec] support most of the cameras on the market,” she said. “From a cost perspective, it’s much more feasible for a school district to implement IP access control,” she said.

In addition, because school systems educate students from kindergarten through high school, at buildings spread out through either a county or city, there is more to providing a video surveillance system than just linking cameras, Winkler-Chimbor said. “It’s not only CCTVs,” she said, adding Genetec looks to provide a fully unified solution that provides district-wide centralized video surveillance and access control. Such control would alert the administrators if a camera goes down, or a traditional DVR box goes down, and the school system does not know.

That is especially likely in large school districts that have hundreds of cameras operating. For example, the New York City School District has 15,000 cameras, she said. When a huge number of cameras are spread out over a wide geographical area, it is likely that the only time a school district learn that a camera is not working, is when they have to pull footage needed to prosecute a case, she said. Genetec’s solution implements districtwide proactive monitoring of equipment, and that monitoring alerts users if a camera is out of focus, or off line, she said. If that occurs, Genetic will send a notification to the staff alerting them of the problem.

Nonetheless, no matter which system is used, it is still school officials who will determine which technology will be used, and how it will be used, to secure the school, Pochowski said. It is the school administration’s responsibility to know when and where problems are likely to occur [“daytime, after school, weekends”] and “open up the technology to keep watch,” he said.