Transforming Video into a Lifesaving Tool in K-12 Schools

According to the National Center for Education Statistics Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2005 Report, just more than 19 percent of K-12 public schools use security cameras. However, few schools are using this video to its maximum potential. Traditionally, video has been used in schools as a largely reactive tool, providing evidence of incidents after the fact. However, new network (also called“IP”) video technology greatly expands the accessibility and usability of video for more proactive, even life-saving purposes. As increasingly serious threats emerge both inside and outside school walls, administrators must advance their security programs to new levels to ensure safe learning and working environments. Network video has the potential to serve as the foundation of a robust security program in K-12 schools, and to be transformed into a lifesaving tool in case of a dire emergency by providing real-time access of video to responding public safety agencies.

The Genesis of Proactive vs. Reactive Video Solutions

While video has always been a valuable tool in many ways, it has largely been used reactively — tapped only once an incident has occurred. Newly available network video technology is a far cry from proprietary legacy surveillance equipment, which was generally managed by security professionals and required significant time and trouble to access. Unlike legacy video technology, which required specialized equipment (a VCR) or even digital CCTV systems — closed-looped systems that require specialized cabling and camera linkage directly to the digital video recorder (DVR) — true network video solutions offer the flexibility and convenience of integrating directly with the existing IT network. This allows for scalability and ease of use that was never before possible. Major benefits include the ability to easily share video across the network, easy addition of cameras to the system, and remote access from any PC. Another major benefit of network video is convenience — it literally takes only seconds to locate and view live or recorded video with simply the click of a mouse. Video is now simply a digital file that can be transferred, emailed, or saved to disk. Previously, tapes had to be copied and mailed or — even in the case of DVRs — in many cases, it was not possible to view video across multiple locations housing different DVRs, adding an extra step of work to the process of transferring and using video.

The Power of Public Safety Access

This technology shift has resulted in network video becoming a completely different animal than its legacy cousin. Now there is potential to truly transform video into a proactive, life-saving tool by sharing it with public safety agencies such as law enforcement and fire departments. When it comes to protecting students during threatening situations, schools rely on local law enforcement to provide security and to respond with the appropriate type and level of resources. Law enforcement is often the first on the scene with life-saving support, resources, and trained professionals. For these professionals, real-time information expedites public response. The better-informed law enforcement is, the more effectively they can respond to emergencies. In order to establish video as a proactive, life-saving tool, schools should take the following steps to ensure a successful, effective implementation.

Perform Proper Site Assessment

To provide law enforcement with the video they need to make better decisions, the school must first capture that critical video. The following areas are most likely to be the site of serious problems and are good places for schools to start when setting up video coverage.

    • Entry and exit doors — Whether or not access control systems are in place, school entries and exits should be monitored. This helps administrators and law enforcement identify potential threats entering the school from outside and to identify faces in case of an intrusion.

    &bull Public areas — Locations such as cafeterias, hallways, libraries, and gymnasiums are also high traffic areas where problems, fights, and other major incidences are likely to occur.

    &bull Loading and unloading areas for buses — This is an area of high traffic concentration twice a day and a potential hotbed of activity and information. Student violence or perpetrators from outside attempting to“get lost” in a flurry of activity can be identified and monitored with surveillance.

    &bull Corners and stairwells — These areas are difficult to see or hidden away and are frequently the locations of fights, bullying, drug usage or worse. These areas should be covered with cameras to provide law enforcement with full video access to likely crime scenes.

    &bull Restroom entrances/exits — Cameras covering the entrances and exits can help law enforcement and administrators identify potential problems such as smoking, drug use, fights, and class-skipping after and before they occur.

Establish a Policy

One of the many challenges schools face when it comes to implementing video systems is the criticism of “big brother” watching and invading the privacy of students. Parents often have conflicting feelings about video security systems, on the one hand urging schools to do everything possible to protect students, and on the other hand wanting to ensure their children’s privacy. This can make it extremely challenging for school administrators to propose effective security solutions.

When implementing a video surveillance solution, administrators should develop a formal policy up-front and share it openly with parents, students, and law enforcement. The policy should communicate the reasons administrators have chosen to invest in surveillance technology and the general guidelines of surveillance. It may include details such as: “Areas covered by cameras will be under 24/7 surveillance. Any acts may be recorded and can be shared with parents and/or used to build a case against violators. Video will be shared with law enforcement agents.”

The policy should also contain information on restrictions on the use of video. For example, schools will want to note that video will never be captured in bathrooms or locker rooms in order to ensure privacy. Additionally, the policy should address whether or not all cameras will be openly visible to students. By developing a policy up-front, school administrators can take a proactive approach to managing questions or criticism and can stay off the defensive when it comes to explaining or justifying their surveillance system, instead focusing on the benefits of the new system.

Provide Browser-Based Access

Dispatchers should have a link via a Web browser where they can pull up live video from cameras on campus. To the previous point, the school should make determinations before granting access regarding any usage limitations or conditions. For example, the school may offer law enforcement full access to camera views any time, any place. Or the school may wish them to access video only in case of an emergency. The IT administrator may choose to administer a one-time-only username and password that is valid for one login only. Once it has been used, another must be issued, enabling the school to verify when the remote application is being used and limiting access for privacy reasons, to genuine emergencies. There are many other creative ways to control access if necessary. However, browser-based remote access to video is critical to enable simple, reliable access when it is needed.

Select the Right System

When investing in a network video solution, administrators should carefully select a system that has the capabilities to meet their needs. While all network video solutions have some basic functionality in common, solution features differ widely. The following list of features should be considered “entry-level qualifications” when selecting a network video solution and video management software;

    &bull browser-based access for maximum interoperability;

    &bull administrative controls that allow IT professionals to set permissions for each individual user;

    &bull scalable architecture to allow for system expansion; and

    &bull ability to easily save, store, and organize live and archived video.

Administrators should view or test comprehensive demonstrations of video management software to understand its capabilities. It is also a good idea to ask specific questions about the system’s capabilities and to request demonstration of particular features during the sales or evaluation process to map out what is included and what would require customization work.

Conduct Tests Often

Schools should work in coordination with law enforcement to conduct random checks and periodic tests to ensure that the solution is being used and that everything is in good working condition. Hopefully, the school will not have a major emergency, but it is important that everything be in place in case a problem does present itself. An innovative approach would be having the local fire department monitor and assess a fire drill by watching the evacuation process via the network video system. This training will both improve system familiarity while testing functionality.

For schools that choose to offer unlimited access, law enforcement may use video on a regular basis for more than just emergencies. In many localities, police are responsible for periodic monitoring of schools, which can be accomplished more efficiently with remote access. Unlimited access has its advantages as the more law enforcement uses the system, the more familiar they will be with it and the more efficient and useful it will be in the case of a real emergency.

Life-Saving Examples

The following examples demonstrate the power of video as a life-saving tool, helping emergency responders act more efficiently and effectively to protect property and lives. A fire alarm sounds during the school day, notifying the local fire department. The principal can quickly look at views from cameras around the fire to determine if any standard exit routes may be blocked. If safe exit route is compromised, the principal can alert certain classrooms affected by the blocked route to take secondary exits routes, as well as mobilize on-site first responders to help coordinate the safe evacuation.

Meanwhile, the local fire chief logs on to the video management system and can quickly determine the areas of the school that are most affected. Thanks to the video, firefighters know immediately where the source of the fire is and are able to respond with the correct resources and equipment, saving valuable time. Thanks to the video, people are evacuated safely from the building and firefighters are able to contain and extinguish the fire with relatively little damage to the rest of the building.

Another possible scenario is a violent armed intrusion. Two students from the school enter the library with guns, holding an entire class hostage. As soon as he becomes aware of the situation, the principal contacts the police department and tells them that students have taken 15 children and three teachers hostage. He notifies the police that the library is under surveillance and the police log on to see live camera views. Law enforcement professionals are able to determine the kinds and amount of weapons the students have and can see where the hostages are. They are able to develop a response plan knowing the location of the kidnappers, the hostages, and the weapons being used to respond more effectively.

In both of these cases, network video was able to provide emergency response teams with real-time information that expedited response time and potentially saved lives. For this reason, schools should make partnering with public safety agencies a real priority when implementing network video solutions. The results could mean the difference between life and death.

Andrew Wren is the president of Wren, a provider of comprehensive video surveillance solutions for more than 20 years. He can be reached at Brad Spicer is the founder of SafePlans and developer of the Emergency Response Information Plan (ERIP), a Web-based emergency preparedness system that has been implemented in schools, government facilities, and private enterprises nationwide. He can be reached at