Adding a Critical Layer of Security

It is every parent’s nightmare. The hour is late and their child has not come home from school as expected. In a panic, they call the principal hoping to find their child’s whereabouts. If the child is lucky enough to attend a school with a sophisticated network surveillance system, the principal can look up the student’s schedule, call up the archived video of the hallway where the child’s last period class took place, see the child leaving the classroom and follow the student’s path as he or she exits the building.

Such is the case at Deer Park Independent School District, located some 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston, Texas.

With their IP-based video surveillance system, administrators “can verify the exact time of day a student left the building and usually we can identify who they last spoke with or left the building with,” says Don Dean, Deputy Superintendent for Administration of the Deer Park Independent School District. “So it gives the parents some avenue to call and that generally turns out to be where the student is found.”

Like many schools, Deer Park has stepped up school security in recent years to better ensure the safety of its more than 12,300 students and nearly 1,800 teachers and other employees. “We’re concerned about access control,” Dean says. “We want to know who is in our facilities and whether visitors are entering our buildings without authorization.”

To achieve that level of vigilance, Deer Park turned to LenSec, a provider of turnkey IP-based video surveillance solutions. LenSec provided the school district with a comprehensive security system that enables school personnel to monitor activity at all 14 campuses and several additional district buildings. The digital, district-wide solution integrates video management software with more than 700 network cameras from Axis Communications — interior and exterior fixed-dome as well as numerous day/night and pan/tilt/zoom cameras for nighttime viewing — to cover the hallways, cafeterias, exterior entrances and athletic grounds of the campuses.

The LenSec/Axis system enables any authorized person in the Deer Park district to see any campus camera from a computer. “Not only do students and staff feel safer with the ‘omnipotent presence’ installed in and around each campus, but parents have more confidence in the district’s ability to protect their children while at school,” says Alan Morris, Vice President of Business Development for LenSec.

Keeping a Watchful Eye

The administrators at Deer Park are always on the lookout for any type of behavior that might be deemed inappropriate or threatening to another student — bullying, harassment and other altercations. With high-resolution network cameras, administrators can delve into the video archive and determine exactly what happened and who was involved.

The system provides several ways to search the archived video and expedite the investigation. “We can retrieve video based on an approximate time when we think the event took place in a specific location, or, with ‘Box Search,’ we can place a virtual box around the area we’re concerned about and only search that area,” Dean says. He cites an example where a laptop was stolen in the cafeteria during lunch. In that instance, an administrator called up a view of the room on the video monitor and drew a box around the area where the laptop was last seen. Within seconds, the system retrieved an image of the last person who was in the area before the laptop went missing.

Interceding Before Problems Develop or Escalate

“Our view is that it’s always better to prevent an incident rather than having to go back and investigate what happened after the fact,” Dean says. For the larger campuses, such as Deer Park High School South, which houses more than 2,800 students, this has meant setting up a live monitoring strategy during peak times — immediately before school, during the seven-minute passing period between classes, lunch period and immediately after the close of school for the day.

The campus is divided into smaller sectors with each assistant principal assigned to patrol a specific sector, while from an office desktop, a corresponding paraprofessional monitors a multi-window view of the cameras operating in that area. The team stays in constant contact via walkie-talkie so that if the paraprofessional sees something that might be problematic, they can radio the AP to move to that area immediately.

“Our student body is fully aware that we have video surveillance in our schools,” Dean says. “They know how we’re managing the campus and it’s made the schools a safer place. We believe the system acts as a great deterrent to bad behavior.”

Strategic Saturation

LenSec selected specific Axis network cameras based on structural and environmental factors and the desire to keep the cameras highly visible to help deter criminal or mischievous behavior.

For buildings with suspended ceilings, LenSec installed AXIS 210 Fixed Network Cameras in housing that replaced one of the ceiling tiles. For high-ceiling areas, the AXIS 210 Network Cameras were wall-mounted. Vandal-resistant AXIS 216FD-V Fixed Dome Network Cameras were installed in locations with hard ceilings, low ceilings and in gymnasiums where their rugged design could withstand the impact of basketballs and other objects.

The primary external camera is the AXIS 211 Fixed Network Camera, equipped with a varifocal lens for a wide range of views. AXIS 225FD Fixed Dome Network Cameras were used in areas with limited mounting heights like walkways. AXIS 233D PTZ Network Cameras gave Deer Park officials the ability to track suspicious behavior in real-time in stadiums, athletic fields, parking lots and driveways. 

Gaining Credibility

Working hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, district staff has demonstrated that the network video surveillance system can be a valuable tool in a crisis. In Active Shooter drills, teams have been able to track and identify a perpetrator in less than one minute. Drills aside, because of the cameras’ high resolution, the district has been able to catch vandals on video during break-ins, and identify and charge them with a felony.

The external PTZ cameras also give administrators an important window to the outside environment. “We live along the Houston shipping channel with industry pretty close to our district,” Dean says. “Should we have an industrial accident, such as a chemical leak or fire; the cameras help us keep an eye on the situation so that we can respond accordingly.”

Because the superintendent and administrators in the central office can view the entire district from their desktops, they can continue monitoring events as they unfold. They also have the freedom to view any campus in the district from any PC that allows access to the network.

While federal privacy regulations bar parents from viewing school video without a subpoena, having the video at hand has helped Dean to mediate complaints. “Parents have a perception of an event based on what their child has told them,” Dean says. “I listen to their side of the story but also review the video file of the incident sent to me by the school principal. It gives me more credibility with the parents when they know I’ve seen an actual recording of the event as it happened. This makes it easier to resolve the issue to their satisfaction.”

Expanding the security blanket

In an effort to better ensure food and kitchen staff safety, Deer Park has begun installing network cameras in all its campus kitchens. This will enable the Director of Child Nutrition to monitor kitchen and cafeteria activity from his desktop.

As more campus renovations are started, the district is remodeling school entrances to include locked vestibules. Cameras mounted at those entrances will help staff identify visitors before deciding whether to buzz them into the building. “We want to be welcoming to parents and visitors,” Dean says, “but we also want to prevent anyone from just wandering into our buildings without our knowledge.

“I’m not naïve to the fact that on any given day, any one of our schools may experience a problem or an incident. And I know that we can’t anticipate every eventuality,” Dean concludes. “But having a sufficient saturation of network cameras at each facility is an important layer in our overall security plan.”

Fredrik Nilsson is General Manager of the Americas for Axis Communications and author of the book “Intelligent Network Video.” Check out his “Eye on Video” series at www.SecurityInfoWatch.com.

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