Protecting the Connected Classroom

Feb. 16, 2012
How to mobilize existing technology resources for security and emergency response

Electronic security in the K-12 education environment often stops at the doorway to the classroom, due to a combination of economics, concerns about student privacy and possible objections from the teacher’s union. Teachers may use panic alarms in case of emergency and can be trained in lockdown procedures, but for the most part, the video surveillance component of security in the classroom does not exist.

Protecting students is always top-of-mind for K-12 schools, but the elements of that protection must not interfere with the teaching environment; in fact, security should be incorporated into the day-to-day function of the school. Video cameras help administrators and teachers watch what is happening in the hallways, stairwells and even remote parts of the facility, but what would be the effect of a video camera inside the classroom? Would it change the classroom dynamic or make the teacher’s techniques more cautious or timid? Would that possible negative effect overshadow the benefit of having the camera in an emergency situation once or twice a year?

Although surveillance technology has been missing, technology in general is everywhere in modern classrooms. Video has been embraced as a learning tool to record lessons and for distance learning. Document cameras enable teachers to project maps, textbook pages and other learning materials for all students to see. Infrared wireless classroom audio systems amplify the teacher’s voice for students to hear clearly. Students use computers and hand-held tablets during their lessons, and interactive computerized whiteboards are taking the place of chalk and white boards. In general, an integrated audio/visual system is part of the new technology-driven classroom environment, and campus-wide IP connectivity provides network access anywhere on the school grounds.

This greater use of technology in the classroom can also help to boost school security. In an emergency, some of these classroom instruction technologies can be leveraged to increase security and to empower a more effective emergency response. Video capability already exists in the classroom that could be used to enable greater school security; it’s just a matter of managing technology to overcome privacy objections and to maximize its effectiveness in case of emergency.

Technology’s Role in Education
Today’s classroom uses a range of newer technologies to enhance learning. Video can be used in the classroom to create an archive of examples that teachers can use to boost student performance and to improve or enhance teaching techniques. High-definition video cameras can enable educators to provide pre-recorded lessons to homebound students or for distance learning, to record student performances and to enable students to collaborate with or debate interactively with their peers from any location in the world. Also, a document camera, which is essentially similar to a video surveillance camera, can be focused on various teaching materials to enable them to be projected on a screen.

These emerging uses of video ensure an increasing presence of cameras in the future; however, there is sensitivity in the education environment to the possible effects of constant surveillance in the learning environment. Therefore, although they are present in the classroom, these cameras are not operating all the time; rather, they are being used only when needed for specific tasks.

In addition to video cameras, modern classrooms have a variety of other audio/visual components. For example, a wireless audio system that amplifies the teacher’s voice can include a wireless pendant microphone worn by the teacher. Full control of power, mute and volume controls are located on the microphone, and the teacher’s hands remain free because the microphone hangs around the neck.

Much of the technology in the classroom can be networked. Internet protocol (IP) can facilitate technology utilization by tying together technologies throughout the entire school to enable greater communication. This connectivity can also enable security and emergency response systems to leverage various classroom technologies to add safety to the benefits of classroom technology.

Leveraging the Security Advantages
IP connects information networks to ensure video can be made available from anywhere on campus without the added expense of running coaxial cable to each camera. Existing networks are typically campus-wide, which means the ability to provide critical video for any surveillance need is as near as the closest network node. The connectivity and functionality of various classroom systems also enable them to play a role in security and emergency response in addition to their everyday function to enrich the learning experience. For example, the same wireless classroom audio system can double as part of an emergency response system. The wireless pendant microphones can put a panic button within easy reach of a teacher in an emergency, and the system can work in tandem with an integrated document camera or other classroom video camera.

By pressing the panic button, the teacher can quietly initiate an immediate first response and provide real-time video of an unfolding incident. When the button is pressed, the document camera is automatically repositioned to focus not on a book or map, but on the classroom as a whole. In effect, the document camera, or potentially any networked video camera used for anything in the classroom, can instantly become a surveillance camera, with video sent to the school’s networked surveillance system to provide visual information about an unfolding event. The panic button also sends an alarm to authorities, enabling immediate response and action to secure the campus if needed.

Addressing Privacy Concerns
The presence of surveillance cameras in the classroom could be seen as disruptive or inhibiting to the learning environment; however, when an emergency situation arises, real-time video surveillance provides a critical tool to security personnel and first responders.
The ideal approach to would be to have cameras in place and kept inactive until needed. Activating a camera for emergency use when needed is one approach; another is to use a camera that ensures privacy until it is activated.

The Port Washington, N.Y., Union Free School District has installed a solution that incorporates technology to guarantee student and teacher privacy. Panasonic worked with SituCon Systems to develop the Panasonic-powered SituCam Privacy Protecting Camera — a dome camera within a housing featuring software-controlled “eyelids” that cover the camera’s lens to ensure teacher and student privacy except during an emergency.

The SituCon Systems’ Emergency Awareness Solution enables a faculty member at the school district to push a wireless “Instant Alert” button to immediately provide school administrators and police with critical information such as the faculty member’s name, location and telephone number. Simultaneously, the privacy-protecting “eyelids” open, exposing a Panasonic security camera that provides real-time video to the police dispatch center, in the cruisers, and on responding officers’ smart phones. At all other times, the eyelids remain closed to prevent camera operation and to make it obvious that the classroom is not being monitored, thus ensuring student and teacher privacy.

The SituCam camera requires only a single Ethernet cable to be run to each camera and replaces an existing ceiling tile using a “Drop-In” Suspended Ceiling Mounting Tile. The integrated Panasonic camera provides high-quality images over the existing wired and wireless data networks without requiring infrastructure upgrades.

Such a system provides assurance to teachers and students that help is only a push of a button away. Police officer safety is improved as responders no longer need to venture blindly into potentially dangerous situations — they can see what is going on before going in.

Balancing Security and Teaching
Keeping students and teachers safe is a top priority and a baseline requirement for effective education. In recent years, violent, high-profile school tragedies have grabbed the headlines. Such tragedies remind teachers, administrators, law enforcement and the public at large of the possible scale and tragic impact of school violence.

The worst incidents of school violence can overshadow an ongoing probability of less dramatic, but still troubling incidents that happen every day at schools across the country — classrooms can be disrupted by fights or other discipline problems, by an irate or intoxicated student, or even by a medical emergency.

Leveraging existing technologies in the “connected” classroom is a useful approach to extending the benefits of video surveillance technology into the classroom without disrupting the teaching environment.

Bill Taylor is president of Panasonic System Networks Company of America.

About the Author

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor is President of Panasonic System Networks Company of America.?