Caught on Camera

Four years ago, I started lobbying the Taos school board for surveillance cameras at the district schools. I was especially concerned about security at the high school. Not only were we trying to avert the usual mischief that high school teens get into, we had a building populated with expensive, highly portable technology, and a lot of night traffic because the school is also used by the University of New Mexico for evening classes. As the technology coordinator and network administrator, I was also worried about the vulnerability of my office computer system and the vast inventory of technology components that I use to teach students to build computers, and that I use myself to build computers for our district, which is kept in the storeroom.

With the board and superintendent repeatedly turning down my request, I decided to buy and install surveillance cameras on my own to protect those technology assets. I didn’t try to keep them a secret. In fact, I’m sure most of the students knew they were in place. Yet, one night after the cameras were up and running for more than a year, a couple of kids got hold of the master key to the high school and entered my office. Because the cameras were equipped with motion-sensors, they began recording activity the instant they detected movement. I was able to capture a high-resolution image of the kids caught in the act of rummaging through my work area. Despite the compelling evidence, the school board still refused to fund the proposal. But last year, with a new superintendent at the helm, along with several new board members, the surveillance proposal finally passed.

Over the next several years, Taos will be working with CDW, a provider of technology solutions, to deploy 100 network video cameras to ensure the safety and security of students and school property. The first 25 cameras will be installed at the high school. Another 25 will be deployed at the middle school, and the remaining 50 will be divided among the district’s three elementary schools.

Choosing IP Over Analog

Deploying IP security cameras, rather than older analog technology, makes it easier to add cameras as funding and time constraints permit. Network cameras don’t need special cables and separate power supplies for each camera. Since the network cameras support PoE (Power over Ethernet), it’s easy to put them wherever we need them. We just run a single Cat-5 Ethernet cable from the camera to the network switch to power up and transmit data directly to the network. We don’t need to install a separate power outlet for each camera.

The other advantage of network cameras is that it’s about as simple to add a camera to the network as it is to add any other peripheral device. And you can add cameras in any increment you choose. Given my hectic schedule — my staff and I are responsible for maintaining more than 2,000 computers on six campuses — it’s nice to have the flexibility to add cameras at my own pace.

I recommended that the district deploy certain day and night network cameras because of the supplier’s reputation and a number of features that made those particular cameras a good fit for our environment. One was that they could operate under infrared lighting conditions, giving us visibility at night when vandals think they can operate undetected. The other plus was the motion-sensing feature because it meant that the cameras would begin recording only when they detected motion.

Deciding Where to Place Cameras
Given the size of the student body and high value of its technology inventory, setting up surveillance at the high school was our first priority. When the campus was first built 40 years ago, Taos was a quiet town and school security wasn’t something people worried about. But over the years, we’ve added new halls and an additional building to accommodate a growing student population. As I walked around the school with the principal, we identified 21 points of entry into the building that we wanted to cover in the initial installation. Once we install the first group of cameras, I’m sure the school administration and security personnel will single out other areas around the campus that they’d like to monitor.

The video management software we’ve chosen can record up to 16 cameras per workstation, so I’ll set up two separate workstations to monitor the video streams from the cameras. The two workstations will reside in the security officer’s office.

As we roll out the surveillance system to middle and elementary schools, I’ll provide each school’s administrative staff with a list of IP addresses for the cameras in their respective school. The principal, vice principal, security guard, and the onsite police officer will be able to pull up the view from any particular camera they want at any time they wish.

One particularly useful aspect of this multi-window system is that any security officer or authorized personnel can observe all 16 windows of streaming video at the same time. Or they can double click any one window to instantly have the view from a particular camera expand to full screen size.

Though the cameras support a vandal alert feature — sounding the alarm if they’re being tampered with — we won’t be using that feature initially. But if the school district decides to upgrade the campus alarm systems, we’ll be able to tie the cameras into that upgrade to take full advantage of the enhanced security.

Coping With Limited Clearance
To minimize the opportunity for vandalism, we’ll be mounting the cameras in the ceilings. The ceilings in the newer areas of the high school were constructed with ample space above the tiles to accommodate the dome enclosures and mounting brackets. But for areas without the necessary room above the ceiling tiles, we’ll simply trim some of the dome enclosure.

Balancing the Load on the Network
There are about 400 computers at the Taos High School that actively access the network on a daily basis. By design, we connect all our network devices to the gigabit backbone by fast Ethernet switches. Since the cameras give us the flexibility to choose a reasonable frame rate for our environment, surveillance activity won’t place any undue burden on our network bandwidth. So I’m confident that adding surveillance to our network won’t degrade the performance of any other IT activity we currently run.

The 60/40 Rule
About 60 percent of our security concerns focus on nights and weekends, when the buildings aren’t occupied. The remaining 40 percent of our focus is on maintaining order during the school day. When kids know that the principal can review the surveillance footage and identify the perpetrators, they’re less likely to start trouble in the first place.

The multi-campus surveillance system is going to cost the school district between $175, 000 and $200,000. But given reports I’ve seen from other cities where two or three students have caused over $50,000 worth of damage in just a few hours of vandalism, I think the school board and the citizens of Taos agree that the protection of our students and property is well worth the investment.

Robert Spitz is the technology coordinator and network administrator for the Taos Municipal Schools in Taos, NM.