IT Infrastructure & Management

The Digital Evolution of Video Surveillance

By Katie Ash — June 17, 2009 7 min read
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Just a few years ago, David Vignery, the director of technology for the Harrisonville school district in Missouri, had to drive to the district’s six schools if he wanted to view video-surveillance footage from each building. It could be weeks before school officials alerted his team that cameras were broken or otherwise not working properly.

Now, because of technological improvements in the video-surveillance industry, it takes just a few seconds for Vignery to view any camera in the district from his desktop computer and be alerted immediately about technical problems. “It’s allowed us to utilize our time more efficiently,” he says of the new setup.

The 2,500-student district, located south of Kansas City, Mo., upgraded its video surveillance to a digital Internet Protocol, or IP, system that is centrally managed.

“The new system gives us the ability to be proactive and protect kids,” says Vignery, “and it gives a sense of security for staff and students.”

And by moving to an IP-based video-surveillance system, which allows the cameras to be integrated into the district’s overall computer network, the cameras are linked to the security system that controls access to school facilities.

Now, if someone tries to enter a building and his or her access is denied, the incident is flagged by the system. Then, with a right-click of his mouse, Vignery can pull up video that will show, either through archived footage or in real time, who was or is attempting to enter a building.

Moving to IP-based video surveillance is an upgrade many districts are making, says Cindy Schwartz, a physical-security specialist at CDW-G, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based technology company that works with schools.

“The main reason behind that is image quality,” she says. An IP-based system can support high-definition video, while closed-circuit, analog systems can’t.

The IP-based systems are also more flexible and easier to upgrade, says Schwartz, a capability that many security and technology experts recommend when implementing a video-surveillance system.

‘Identifying People’

“One thing that we learned quite early on was, in the world of technology, two or three years is a lifetime,” says John B. McEntee, the director of safety and security for the 7,000-student Hickman Mills C-1 district in Kansas City, Mo. Consequently, he says, putting in a system that can be easily upgraded will help districts get the best value for their investment.

“You want to maximize the opportunity of your dollars,” says McEntee.

His district has about 200 cameras in 15 buildings. It originally put in surveillance cameras in 2003 that took 60 still-photo images each minute; the district has since upgraded to a digital system that records motion.

“It has yielded tremendous results in terms of identifying people who are in the buildings without authorization and internal theft,” McEntee says.

Although the new system is capable of allowing users to view the cameras from any Web browser, officials in the district decided to disable that feature, opting instead to store the images only on the district’s own servers, says McEntee. “While that was a good feature, there’s always the threat of compromising the integrity of that system,” he says.

But moving to an IP-based video-surveillance system is not necessarily the right solution for all districts, says Michael M. Garcia, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the San Antonio-based MDI Inc. and LearnSafe, the arm of the company that provides security products for K-12 schools.

“Not every school needs all the bells and whistles that IP video offers,” says Garcia. Just having cameras in the schools can act as a deterrent to theft and violence, he says.

And before buying any equipment, each school district should go through a risk assessment with an independent third party to assess the individual needs of the district, says Garcia.

In particular, he says, both the risk assessment and consultation with security vendors can help districts determine camera placement.

Proper Policies and Procedures

But safety experts caution against overreliance on technology to keep schools secure.

Video surveillance is most effective “when used properly and when the other, more basic, more important measures have been put into place,” says Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a Macon, Ga.-based nonprofit school safety center.

“There are a lot of things that you can do that don’t cost very much that have a greater return than cameras would normally give you,” he says, such as providing formal training in proper supervision and space-management techniques for faculty and staff members.

In fact, without those policies and procedures in place, having video surveillance could actually be a liability for a school, says Dorn.

For instance, a parent could use video footage to sue the school district for negligence if proper safety procedures are not being followed, he says.

Ultimately, “cameras complement good human behavior,” Dorn says. Simply training school employees to question unfamiliar faces in the building can lead to a significant safety improvement, he says.

In addition to an independent, third-party risk assessment, which Dorn highly recommends, he suggests that students, parents, and staff members be surveyed to pinpoint high-risk areas.

“We know from research that bullying is heavily underreported,” he says. “And you can’t address the problem if you don’t know it exists.”

And after a district undergoes a risk assessment and finds a vendor, administrators should be sure to include clear language about whether the vendor or the installer will be responsible for technical repairs and assistance, says Dorn, if they are two separate companies.

McEntee, from the Hickman Mills schools in Missouri, also emphasizes the importance of ongoing maintenance and service.

“The service is so important,” he says. For that reason, he suggests using a local vendor that will be able to respond quickly to technical problems.

Return on Investment

Although video-surveillance systems can be multimillion-dollar purchases, Patrick V. Fiel, the public-safety adviser for the Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT Security Services, and a former chief of police for the District of Columbia public schools, says that a reduction in thefts and violent incidents in schools could pay for the cameras in as little as one year.

The cost for purchasing and installing a video surveillance system varies greatly depending on the size of the district, the number of schools, the amount of cameras in each school, and what types of cameras and features the district needs. The price tag can range from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars. And despite tight budgets, Fiel predicts that video surveillance in schools will continue to grow. “Everybody that we’re talking to is either adding or putting cameras into their schools,” he says.

Some districts are adding new video-surveillance technology, such as wireless cameras, to watch over athletic fields or parking lots, says Fiel. And the use of video analytics, which can allow security directors to program cameras to trigger an alarm if there are changes in scenery—if a door that is supposed to remain closed is opened, for instance, or if a suspicious package is left unattended—is growing.

But not all of the latest video surveillance technology is quite ready to hit classrooms, says Noelle Mashburn, a spokeswoman for the 75,000-student Metropolitan Nashville public school system. That Tennessee district, which has video surveillance in all its middle and high schools as well as on some school buses, piloted facial-recognition video-surveillance technology in four schools during the 2007-08 academic year. District officials ultimately decided not to fully implement the feature, though, because the database of people restricted from school grounds wasn’t completely developed, rendering the technology inefficient.

The facial-recognition system also required more staff training than other video surveillance, making it hard to justify the extra cost, says Mashburn.

And although not every school needs all the new features that emerging technology has made available, schools do have a responsibility to put tools in place to ensure the safety of students and faculty, says Garcia from LearnSafe. “We’re here to protect people, facilities, and assets—and the greatest asset is our children,” he says. “A safe student is a learning student.”

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