The use of surveillance cameras in schools is not new, but just about everything involved with the technology and the way it is used is new. Surveillance equipment once was a precautionary system, relegated to the corner, where it gathered dust until an incident took place; then administrators would painstakingly roll out the video to investigate and try to identify who was involved. Using a video system this way may help reduce some types of incidents, but it is not the most effective way to prevent trouble, identify weaknesses in a system and improve operations.
Thanks to the introduction of network (also known as IP) video systems, video has greater potential to boost an education institution's security. But many administrators are unsure of the best way to select, install and use network video technology.
Several steps are necessary for establishing a successful video system:
- Research the types of available equipment
With so many technologies to choose from at different price points, selecting the right equipment is not always an easy task. In an analog system, finding a few seconds of relevant footage can involve hours of reviewing tapes on a video cassette player. So, most school officials have come to recognize the benefits of digital video compared with analog video. Yet many administrators do not understand how a network video system is superior to digital video recorder (DVR) technology.
Several features make network video particularly useful for schools compared with DVRs. Unlike a DVR, network video is not a closed system requiring specialized cabling. Network video cameras are just like any other peripheral running on an existing IT network, such as a printer or a scanner. The video-management software is just another application running on a PC.
Cameras can be added onto a network as long as the network has bandwidth to support them. DVRs run on a closed system that supports a limited number of cameras. In many cases, video from DVRs, while available through software online, is not available at different locations.
Once an education institution has decided on using IP video, it still has more homework to do. The right video-management software will ensure that video is easy to access, store, manage and use. Administrators should develop a list of features that the software should have, such as remote functionality, an unlimited number of users, or special administrative controls that enable specific users to have different access privileges.
Selecting a camera depends on what a school is hoping to accomplish with it and on where it will be situated. For example, a camera placed inside a dark corridor to monitor activity during nights and weekends should be able to provide the needed images in low-light conditions. A camera installed to detect motion may require a different lens than one put in to identify faces of people entering a facility.
- Do the math
Most schools will use their existing budgets to pay for video surveillance. Administrators can tap other sources of funding, such as grants and donations.
Federal preparedness and security-related grant programs offer money for security equipment. Grant applications offer no funding guarantees, but the process can help an education institution determine its needs and identify associated costs.
The U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov/programs/dvpemergencyresponse/applicant.html); the U.S. Department of Justice (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/funding); and the Safe School Healthy Students: (www.sshs.samhsa.gov) are among those offering grants.
Schools also can seek donations, either through corporate sponsors or specific school-safety fundraisers. Because school safety typically is a widely supported issue, schools often find many willing donors.
When installing a system, administrators should establish which needs have priority. It is a good idea to cover problem areas first and add equipment as more funding becomes available. As a rule, video should cover primary entrances, non-secure points of entry, gathering areas (cafeterias, libraries and commons areas), and heavily trafficked hallways.
- Make it a group project
A multi-functional team should include administrators, safety officers, information-technology professionals, teachers, and athletic and transportation directors. They can best foresee which areas will need surveillance. Each of these stakeholders will be able to identify unique uses for video. All major participants in a school community can contribute their knowledge to the planning process.
- Learn from the best
Schools have needs and constraints that can be completely different from those found in the private sector. Choosing a vendor that has experience selling and installing video in schools may help an institution avoid problems.
Before selecting a vendor, school officials should thoroughly assess at least two or three vendors. Ask questions about their policies regarding warranties, returns and repairs. Ask for other school references and follow up to find out about the experience of those institutions.
- Develop a lesson plan
One of the most common mistakes that schools make when installing network video is failing to plan. Are critical threats originating within the school or from outsiders coming into the building? How will the system be used, and who will use it? Will those monitoring the system be office workers that have other responsibilities, or will safety officers dedicated to the security effort have the primary responsibility?
Fleshing out a plan will go a long way in determining how the system will be used and what training is needed to ensure proper usage. These objectives also will dictate the selection of equipment and software.
- Do your homework
Regardless of how easy a system is to use, any new technology requires training and adjustment. It is unrealistic to expect that every user will adapt easily to new equipment. Planning for the operation of the system is just as important as planning for the purchase of the system. Administrators should budget time and resources for training.
Some IT workers may encounter difficulty managing the system because they may not be comfortable with camera technology. Administrators should provide the IT team with training or vendor support.
- Share your work
Schools have a major advantage over private enterprises in developing security and operations efforts: their willingness to share. Administrators can tell their colleagues at other institutions about what does and does not work. They can learn from others' mistakes and successes. Talk to other administrators who have invested in video to learn about pitfalls, recommendations, vendors and placement.
- Be prepared for class discussion
Some in the school community may object to the use of video surveillance, so administrators should develop an official policy on the use of video that communicates why and how the school has chosen to use the surveillance.
By developing and communicating a plan, school administrators can avoid being put on the defensive and can address concerns and garner support from the outset.
- Make the grade
To have a successful video system, schools must be able to track results and adjust operations. Tracking means evaluating and recording how often the system is used and for what purpose. A school can track the number of incidences resolved or prosecuted, or count the number of fights or other problems prevented.
The metrics will depend on which goals administrators have set. Metrics enable schools to determine the return on their investment and to pinpoint additional training or equipment needs.
- Be a class leader
Savvy schools are using video for more than just traditional security purposes. Schools now can use video as a life-saving tool by sharing it with local law enforcement. They also can transform video into an operations tool. It can help manage and maintain facilities, and improve operational flow at class-dismissal times and lunch periods.
Wren is president of Wren, Jefferson City, Mo., a provider of video-surveillance solutions. Spicer is the founder of SafePlans and developer of the Emergency Response Information Plan (ERIP), a web-based emergency-preparedness system that has been used in schools, government facilities, and private enterprises.
Percentage of students who observed the use of security cameras at their schools in 2001.
Percentage of students who observed the use of security cameras at their schools in 2005.
Source: Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2006, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)