Oct 31 2006

Schools Install Internet-Based Security Cameras To Protect Students

Some schools have installed Internet Protocol-based digital video cameras to make security surveillance more affordable, easier to use and more powerful than closed-circuit systems. As a result, the schools have decreased violence, theft and vandalism and

Spotsylvania County schools are very concerned about creating a safe learning environment.

To improve safety for students and staff, Spotsylvania County Schools in Fredericksburg, Va., installed about 500 network cameras from Axis Communications in school hallways, entrances, playgrounds and parking lots throughout its 30 campuses, recording every person’s moves before, during and after school.

With cameras watching, students know it’s prudent to stay on their best behavior. When incidents do happen, administrators can review the video from any computer with an Internet connection to determine what happened and identify the culprits, says Donald Alvey, director of secondary education at Spotsylvania.

“Our kids and parents feel safer,” Alvey says. “And when kids do get into fights, it saves my administrators’ time. Without cameras, you can interview 12 students and get 12 different stories. If you have a video clip, it’s cut and dried.”

Video surveillance security systems are not new, but Internet Protocol (IP)-based digital video cameras from companies such as Axis add a new twist to the technology. They are more cost-effective and easier to use, and they offer more features than older systems, school officials say.

In the past, the only option was closed-circuit television systems in which security personnel viewed the analog cameras live in a room full of monitors. The video was recorded by VCRs on tape that had to be swapped out every six hours. If an incident needed to be reviewed by security personnel it could take several hours to sift through the footage. It also required districts to wire their schools with coaxial cables, a significant cost.

Now, school districts are increasingly choosing IP-based cameras that connect directly to a local area network (LAN). When the cameras’ motion detectors sense movement, they record the video onto servers. School administrators can log on from work or home, and through a Web browser, check any camera in their schools, eliminating the need for personnel to monitor the systems.

If an incident occurs, administrators can quickly search archived video by typing the time and location of the incident. In seconds, the footage pops up on screen. Districts can also provide access to law enforcement, so if alarms sound, police can log on and investigate.

“It’s very easy to use,” says Terry Cornelius, Frisco Independent School District’s executive director of technology and information services. “As soon as principals log on, they see a map of their school with all the cameras located on the floor plan. They click on them to go to the archives or see the cameras live.”

A Multitude of Choices

School districts have many IP-based video surveillance options from which to choose. The latest cameras can pan and tilt, zoom in and out, and capture audio. The systems can also operate on wireless networks. They can store the video on servers or digital video recorders (DVRs). Manufacturers can even integrate analog cameras from existing closed-circuit TV systems into an IP-based video system.

Spotsylvania and Frisco utilize network video technology from Axis which allows the school districts to operate IP-based surveillance over their existing computer networks. Attached to the networks are servers for storing video. Spotsylvania spent about $900,000 for its system, while the Frisco district, located in Frisco, Texas, invested an initial $1.2 million for 542 cameras throughout its 28 schools.

Frisco considered two surveillance systems: one that stored video on servers and ran on an IP-based network and another that stored video on DVRs, but required coaxial cabling. Frisco officials decided the IP-based system was more cost-effective. Servers have more storage capacity than DVRs, and Frisco schools already had LANs installed, but not coaxial cables, says Kevin Haller, Frisco school district’s director of security.

“When you consider that the IP technology is working the way it’s supposed to, that servers have more disk space, and it uses the existing network cabling, it winds up being a no-brainer decision,” adds Frisco’s Cornelius, whose district has purchased an additional 200 cameras. “And it saves money.”

Proper Placement Is Key

In May 2004, Spotsylvania’s surveillance system vendor consulted with each school principal to determine camera placement. They installed 32 Axis networks cameras in each high school, 24 in each middle school and 12 in each elementary school.

Spotsylvania placed 75 percent of its high school cameras indoors because students frequently traverse the hallways between classes. In contrast, 75 percent of elementary school cameras are placed outdoors, covering every doorway and school playground to protect children. Fewer cameras are indoors because elementary school students tend to stay in one classroom, Alvey explains.

“In elementary schools, you want to identify all points of entry and exit, and you want a visual record of who’s coming in and out of the school,” he says.

The district also points cameras at the exterior doors of bathrooms and locker rooms. At the end of each school period, custodians check each bathroom for graffiti and other vandalism. If they find anything wrong, school officials can potentially find the culprit by reviewing video of everyone that entered that bathroom during that period. The district places cameras in the cafeteria to deter students from taking food without paying.

While school administrators are the primary users, Spotsylvania has given camera access to the sheriff’s office. If school alarms go off, dispatchers and deputies with notebook computers in their patrol cars can quickly scan the cameras’ footage, Alvey says.

The cameras are a good deterrent against fights, vandalism and crimes, and also serve as an investigative tool, says Joe Rodkey, principal at Spotsylvania’s Massaponax High School. “We can bring up an incident and see what happened frame by frame,” he says. “It’s saved us days of investigation.”

Spotsylvania’s servers save video for 18 to 20 days before erasing them with new footage. If a major incident occurs, school officials can save the video on a computer hard drive or CD-ROM.

While spending about $1 million on surveillance systems may sound pricey, school district officials say it’s worth the investment because of improved safety.

“We have fewer incidents,” Frisco’s Haller says. “During school hours, the cameras improve the safety and well-being of our students, and after the students leave, the cameras protect our assets.”

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter based in Phoenix.

Tips for Installing a Surveillance System

• Make sure your network has enough bandwidth to take on video.

• When purchasing equipment, negotiate installation and maintenance into the contract. The Frisco and Spotsylvania school districts each have three-year maintenance contracts.

• Consult with principals to determine camera locations and double-check camera angles. You don’t want tall trees blocking the view.

• High schools require more cameras, particularly indoors, because the student population is typically larger and because students congregate in the hallways as they move between classrooms.

• Place plenty of outdoor cameras in elementary schools, such as doorways and playgrounds, to keep an eye on the children.

• Decreasing the frames each camera records per second can lessen the load on your servers. Frisco, for example, views live images at 30 frames per second, but only records at a rate of one frame per second.

Sources: Axis Communications, Frisco Independent School District, and Spotsylvania County Schools