School Security Moves Into the Digital Age

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The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have prompted many U.S. companies to reassess their security measures and crisis management plans. Unfortunately, this kind of evaluation was a familiar process for most administrators nationwide who were forced to take a good look at their school safety procedures following the tragic ripple of deadly school shootings that occurred from Oregon to Colorado to Pennsylvania in the late 1990s.

Controversial “zero-tolerance” policies came into vogue, and state police departments, in conjunction with state attorneys general, established anonymous tip hot lines for students, teachers and community members. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 36 states considered school safety bills during the 1998 legislative sessions. School policies, such as one passed in Pennsylvania addressing criteria for student expulsions, suddenly included phrases like “terrorist threats” and “terrorist plots.” On the local level, school districts responded by locking down their campuses during school hours, and employing school-liaison police officers and metal detectors at entrances. Campus surveillance systems also became commonplace in schools.

While VHS-based surveillance technology and real-time closed-circuit TV monitoring are widely used in schools today, several districts in Texas and Oklahoma have taken their surveillance systems into the digital age. Salient Systems Corp., a digital surveillance recording manufacturer in Austin, Texas, which built its business on retail clients, now has a new market in education. In recent years, the security-technology company has worked with independent school districts, as well as universities and their local police departments to implement remote digital monitoring and recording systems.

Digital Surveillance

Unlike traditional videotape-recorder surveillance, which requires someone on-site to review tapes and handle recording equipment, remote digital-surveillance recording technology enables users to watch and record real-time surveillance footage of school grounds utilizing a Dell PC. The Dell PC-based technology works by transmitting live data from school cameras to networked PCs via an Internet or intranet connection.

The PC-based systems digitize, compress and store surveillance video on the PC’s hard drive for up to 30 days. Video files then can be accessed and reviewed on the computer monitor by typing in dates and times. The video files also can be backed up onto a Zip disk or CD-ROM; and, if necessary, individual screen shots of video can be saved as evidence to a floppy disk. Some digital systems even save files in AVI format, enabling any computer equipped with a Windows 95 version or later of Windows Media Player to play back the footage. In practice, this means that a principal can attach a surveillance file to an e-mail, then send it to the police or the school superintendent for immediate review.

Digital recording technology also allows for more defined images than those captured on VHS surveillance systems. The video-frame rate recorded on most digital systems varies between four and 30 frames per second, depending on how many camera views are accessed at once. Users are also able to review video files in a full-screen, real-time format without interrupting any recording or losing picture quality.

Remote Monitoring

Last year, the police department of Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, Texas, installed Salient digital surveillance systems on five school campuses to monitor lunchrooms, hallways, as well as student and teacher parking lots. The computer servers were connected through a WAN to desktop computers in the principals’ offices and at the police department, so that these offices could remotely monitor and record campus activities on a real-time basis.

Chuck Brawner of the Spring Branch ISD Police Department says that the surveillance system has already proven effective. They arrested two students who called in bomb threats from pay phones located on school grounds. The students were observed on camera making the calls. “Because we were immediately able to determine that the calls were made by the students and were a hoax, we did not have to evacuate the building, which would have been disruptive to the educational environment,” says Brawner.

“Think about how valuable this technology would have been to law enforcement officers who were at the scene at Columbine,” says Mike Kuhn of Convergint Technologies LLC (www.convergint.com), a provider of digital surveillance systems in Houston. “All of the video equipment at Columbine was in the school. With the Internet and a digital remote-viewing system, the officers could have monitored the activity inside of the school while at any computer connected to the school network.”

According to Brawner, his district currently uses a combination of PC- and VHS-based surveillance systems, but the goal is to upgrade all equipment to use digital technology over the next several years. He adds that PC-based systems also are a time-saver during investigations. “We can enter the date and the approximate time of the event into the computer, and the system will immediately pull up the saved video file for our review,” he says, explaining that with their former VHS-based system, security personnel sometimes spent hours forwarding and rewinding through videotapes to locate evidential footage. “And digital systems in the long run are more cost-effective, because you no longer have to deal with VCR equipment repairs or videotape maintenance and storage.”

Protecting Central Administration

Barbara Clanton, supervisor of electronic security for Tulsa ISD, the largest school district in Oklahoma, says that Salient’s digital surveillance has replaced VHS systems at the district’s central administration building, a six-story structure that houses almost 400 employees. However, plans are in line to employ the technology on school grounds as funding becomes available. According to Clanton, the administrative building is monitored by 11 interior cameras and three exterior cameras, one of which is a rooftop camera that can be manipulated remotely with a desktop mouse control to view the visitor and employee parking lots.

Clanton says that the schools in her district have motion-detection alarm systems, and some have on-site surveillance cameras that operate only during school hours. “What we hope to move to in the future, and what Salient Systems will make possible, is to remotely monitor video of the schools 24 hours, seven days a week, from our master control room here [in the administrative building],” she says. “We would use the cameras to supplement our motion detectors. If we received an alarm from a school, we could switch to the cameras at that site and actually see what was happening.”

University Campus Crackdown

The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has installed Salient’s PC-based digital video surveillance equipment on two campuses to better monitor building entrances and other critical security areas, according to Dan Pe-a, UTSA’s assistant chief of police. “We implemented Salient’s technology at our main and downtown campuses in response to our need to improve our control and security video recording,” says Pe-a.

The main campus includes 14 buildings, university housing and other facilities on 600 acres. According to Pe-a, the university uses Salient’s digital video surveillance technology to record security events for criminal evidence, manage facilities remotely and control facility access. He says the new system already has helped UTSA’s police department identify an individual suspected of a campus computer theft.

Katie Garza
Freelance Writer
Austin, Texas

Contact Information
Salient Systems Corp.
Austin, TX
(512) 302-3933
www.salientsys.com

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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