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School Surveillance: A Failing Grade?

Most schools not using technology to its fullest

In the past 10 years, 284 people have been killed in U.S. school-associated violent deaths. Of those, 130 were shot; others were stabbed, beaten to death or committed suicide. In response to these tragedies, many schools have beefed up their security procedures, including adding or upgrading school video surveillance systems.

by James Careless

“Use of video surveillance by schools spiked following the Columbine High School attack in 1999,” says Kenneth S. Trump. He is President of National School Safety and Security Services,which operates, an independent consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. “The Columbine attack sent shockwaves through the education community and forced schools to try to play catch-up with decades of neglect in the most basic security and emergency preparedness measures. Security technology was one of multiple pieces of the puzzle many school districts incorporated into their beefed up security programs.”

This said, the current state of U.S. school video surveillance can only be described as chaotic. “There are no across-the-board minimum standards or a common approach to school video surveillance from school board to school board, or even school to neighboring school,” says Chuck Hibbert, president of Hibbert Safe School Consulting in Indianapolis. “Moreover, parents are frequently resistant to the notion of making their schools more secure; even parents who work in secured environments in their jobs!”

“While video surveillance technology continues to evolve and advance, the resources for schools to tap into this technology have not kept pace,” Trump says. “In fact, funding for school security has been on a decline in recent years and is especially been gutted this year due to the massive cuts in education budgets.”


Theoretically, K-12 schools have access to the same level of sophisticated video surveillance currently being used in government, university and business settings. This means that it is now possible for a school to install a network of cameras in and outside of their facilities, providing complete coverage of all rooms, hallways, entrances and outdoor areas. All of this coverage can be routed to a central surveillance center that is staffed 24/7, and recorded onto digital video recorders for easy access, archiving, and retrieval.

Moreover, such systems can start small, and integrate legacy equipment, says Mike Haldas. He owns CCTV Camera Pros in Boynton Beach, Fla. “IP-based and analog CCTV-based surveillance systems can be used in school systems,” he says. “Both solutions are very sophisticated and all a school system to grow over time. For example, they can start with an eight-camera system and grow over time to hundreds of cameras if needed.” Such systems can provide remote real-time viewing and playback on password-protected, Internet-connected PCs and mobile clients including iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

School video surveillance integrators abound, and are capable of meeting both small and large system needs. “We’ve installed full IP-based surveillance systems for schools in the U.S. and Canada, ranging in size from 32 to 400 cameras a location,” says Vy Hoang, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing at i3International in Toronto, Ontario. “Many have directly connected their camera systems to provide access to local police, so that SWAT teams cans see what’s happening during a lockdown.”

That’s just the beginning: Using products such as On-Net Surveillance Systems’ Intelligent IP Video Delivery Solutions, a school surveillance system can automatically monitor a complete set of cameras, with the software watching for specific sequences of suspicious events and alert selected officials as needed.

“As well, we can integrate IP-based video systems with other technology such as card-swipe access,” says Gadi Piran, OnSSI president and chief technology officer, based in Pearl River, N.Y. “So if two people try to go through a door using one card swipe, our system notes the discrepancy in real time and sends out an alert.”

Meanwhile, SRI International has developed a two-way data radio system that allows passing police patrol cars to wirelessly log into a school’s video system. Branded as Aware Mobile networks, this system uses a radio transceiver attached to the school’s LAN and two-way radio cards installed in patrol laptop PCMCIA slots to make these connections happen.

“In its basic configuration, a school can provide police with a single camera view at all times,” says Paul Callahan, SRI International’s business development manager. “In an advanced configuration, officers can take remote control of the school’s system to look around. This could be an incredible aid during lockdowns, when a shooter might be in the building.”


Clearly, the technology exists to make every school safe and secure. But the truth is that few schools have such complete systems in place.

“The ideal would be to have a staffed 24/7 central monitoring facility in each school,” Hibbert says. “With the schools that I’ve worked with over the years, I can still count on one hand the number of schools that actually do this.” Why are schools so reluctant to employ state-of-the-art video surveillance, or even surveillance equivalent to that of a local 7-11 store? One major reason is money.

“When school administrators start facing teacher lay-offs, we know security budgets will be first on the chopping block,” Trump says. “And this is exactly what is occurring for this school year and into the near future.”

The second problem is the attitude of school administrators; many of whom grew up in a time when school security wasn’t a major public issue.

With tight budgets and constant issues to mediate between students, teachers and parents, worrying about whether their video system is working to its potential is a very low priority.“Security technology is only as strong as the weakest human link behind the technology,” says Trump. “Too often we see schools throw up equipment after a high-profile incident to create the perception of increased security when, in reality, it is a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to get parents and the media to back off. The cameras may go up, but the human element of security – training staff, examining security policies, developing and testing emergency plans – is still missing.”

“Many schools have no policy about video retention,” Hibbert adds. “They either don’t record what’s happening beyond a day or two, or simply leave it on tape or the server until it is recorded over.”

The third obstacle to effective school video surveillance are parents. “Unless you can get a majority of parents to get onboard–and this usually doesn’t happen until something happens at the school–you won’t get the support you need to fund and maintain adequate surveillance,” says Hibbert.

“Achieving community consensus is the toughest part of the job.”