School Surveillance Considerations

By: Ethan Ace, Published on Feb 29, 2012

[Update: For a more in-depth, newer review, see School Video Surveillance Guide]

In education, surveillance has become much more prevalent in the past decade. Prior to that, many schools had no surveillance systems or limited its use to entrances only. This changed as serious incidents, grant funding and public support increased. Now full-blown surveillance systems can be found even in the smallest of schools. In this guide, we will look at design considerations for primary schools (typically grades kindergarten through 4-6). We cover common threats, camera locations, procurement, network considerations, viewing video and product selection.

Common Threats

Elementary schools have a different set of issues than upper grade schools. Student violence and vandalism are less of a concern at these ages. Most threats to schools at the elementary level are external, including:

  • Vandalism: Damage and vandalism to a school's exterior are common problems, including graffiti, broken windows, or damage to playground equipment.
  • Theft: Computers and AV equipment are the most common targets of theft in schools. Computers especially have become a target, as computer labs are often placed on the first floor, in view of people from the outside, making it easier to "smash and grab".
  • Child abduction: A quick search of the internet turns up thousands of results for attempted child abduction from elementary schools, often by parents without custody. Abduction is less likely than theft or vandalism, but the legal and public relations fallout are far more severe.

Though the above are most common, problems at each school will vary. Some with higher grades, such as K-6, may have more issues with interior vandalism and fighting than grades K through 4 schools.

Common Camera Locations

With the above threats in mind, there are a few locations where elementary schools commonly deploy cameras:

  • Entrances: All entrances to the building should be covered to capture comings and goings. This includes the main entrance, in addition to entrances used during bus loading and unloading, shipping/receiving doors, and doors which may be used for recess or gym class. These doors are most likely to be held open or left unlocked, potentially becoming an entry point for criminals. This is normally best accomplished with a camera inside the building, focused tightly on the entrance. Many facilities have placed cameras outside the building, aimed entrances for this purpose, but this often results in images of the side or back of subjects' heads, not clear facial images. Wide dynamic cameras should be installed in locations with strong backlighting.
  • Building exterior: The exterior of the building, including the building perimeter and play areas, is typically covered to capture vandalism as it happens. Typically this is for forensic use only, as most schools are not staffed at night. The building perimeter is most often covered by cameras aimed from building corners. Fully covering every single exterior wall is often not necessary, as vandalism is far less likely to occur in areas which are under natural surveillance, i.e., close to well-lit streets in residential areas. In these cases, the back of the building or blind spots may be key areas to watch out for.
  • Computer labs: Security is often an afterthought in these labs, with many labs located on the first floor, with unsecured windows and no intrusion detection sensors. This means that breaking a lab window may go undetected until the next morning. For these reasons, cameras are best installed inside of computer labs, paying attention to potential entry points. If the building has an intrusion detection system, as most do, glass break and magnetic sensors should be considered for any windows, and motion detectors for the room. Tying these in to IP cameras via contact closure also allows the VMS system to mark video for quicker retrieval later, and may be used to alert staff to an intrusion in progress.
  • Cafeterias: Of all the areas in an elementary school, the cafeteria is the most likely to see student disturbances, simply because no other area gathers as many students at one time. Typically, the cafeteria is covered from multiple angles, such as from corner to corner, though architectural features such as columns and odd-shaped rooms will dictate whether this is preferable. 180- and 360-degree panoramic cameras are also seeing increased use in these areas, as they allow monitoring of a wide area from a single point.

Network Considerations

Most IP camera deployments in schools use a dedicated network, instead of connecting to existing switches. Schools at the primary level are more likely to have dated network equipment which would be unsuited to IP video. This does not mean that no coordination with school IT staff is required. In most cases, the security and school LANs are connected, so that principals and other administrative staff may view video on their PCs. If video will be monitored remotely, whether via mobile app or a remote command center, firewalls and/or routers must be configured to allow this traffic. All of these configuration changes require coordination with district IT.

Viewing of Video

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In most cases, elementary school surveillance systems are viewed live sporadically, at best. Most elementary schools do not have dedicated guard staff, so viewing is often in the form of a monitor located in the main office, which administrative staff glances at occasionally, or when someone is at the door. This sporadic use can lead to missed incidents which may have been easily caught by someone viewing live. It is good practice for staff to view live video with more intent at least during arrival and dismissal, when more doors in and out of the building are open, and during lunch or special events, times during which incidents and intrusions are more likely.

In school districts with a guard force, even though video is not monitored at the elementary school, it may be monitored by guards in a central command center. Like local viewing, this is typically periodic, throughout the school day, not full-time.

Mobile applications may be of interest in primary school settings, as well. Principals are often mobile, out of their office most of the day, and in some cases covering multiple schools. The ability to check in on activities from anywhere may benefit them. Nighttime janitorial staff may benefit as well, in order to look in on the perimeter or exterior areas during the course of their shift, as generally, no one else is viewing video.

Procurement

In most cases, schools have a dollar limit to purchases which can be made without going to bid. In many cases, even purchases below this limit require multiple quotes. Many schools use statewide purchasing programs to avoid the bid process, which can add thousands of dollars in administration to a project. Programs of this type vary from state to state, thought PEPPM is available nationwide, in varying capacities.

Typically, elementary schools receive the least funding for surveillance of all schools in a district. Because of this, it is important that administrators prioritize locations according to where actual problems lie, instead of arbitrarily selecting coverage areas.

Obviously, system price will vary depending on the size of the school. In suburban and rural areas, districts generally will spend $15,000 or less on surveillance of an elementary school. In smaller urban areas, where buildings may easily be double the size, budgets may increase into the $20,000-30,000 range. Large urban areas may spend more than this, as well.

Product Selection

In our experience, there are definite trends in what types of surveillance equipment is being purchased by schools:

  • IP vs. Analog: Like the bulk of new installs, IP cameras are being selected more often than not for school surveillance. The key benefit of IP video to schools is increased resolution, discussed below.
  • Frame rate and retention: Given the small fields of view of most interior areas in schools, frame rates of 5-10 frames per second should be more than sufficient. The purpose of these cameras is more for identification than to capture subtle movements, making the higher framerates extraneous. Exterior areas may use frame rates as high as 15-20 FPS, especially if capturing details of moving vehicles is a concern.
  • SD vs. Megapixel: In many areas, standard definition cameras are sufficient for schools. Inside double-door entrances, for example, are approximately six feet wide. 640 pixels across a six-foot FOV results in over 100 pixels per foot, more than sufficient for identification. Areas with multiple doors may not be well-covered by a single SD camera, however, making megapixel a viable option. Outdoor areas are generally best covered with megapixel cameras, in order to have any hopes of providing identifying details across a wide area. 
  • Multi-Megapixel Use: Multi-megapixel cameras (3MP and above) are sometimes used for very large areas, such as parking lots and sports fields, but should be carefully considered. These areas are often dimly lit, which makes capturing nighttime video a challenge, and providing little benefit over 1.3 or 2MP cameras.
  • Form factor: Minidomes are generally used in interior areas, to reduce susceptibility to vandalism, and maintain better aesthetics. For exterior areas, box, bullet, and minidome styles are used. Box cameras allow for a wider selection of lenses, which may be necessary in some instances. Bullet and box are otherwise used.
  • Fixed vs. PTZ: In elementary schools, since the system is generally unmonitored, and not controlled in real time, PTZ cameras are not recommended. Historically, PTZs have been installed in exterior areas, and set on tour, but this is no longer considered best practice, as PTZ cameras are easily 3x the price of fixed, and perceived as "always looking the other way".
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