Incidents of school violence never stop, but funding lags:
Students in the hallways of their Pittsburgh high school may be safer there than in any other building in town. That’s the claim of the school security directors. With 250 to 350 cameras in each of the 10 high schools, surveillance captures all activity in gymnasiums, hallways, bathroom entrances, parking lots and the streets near the front entrance.
New York City, Houston, Buffalo and many other urban school districts are investing in security systems that go far beyond the metal detectors and hall monitors of yesteryear. However, funding is still the predominant barrier. To combat monetary restrictions, districts and their engineers count on contractors to find ways to bring the cost down.
“Perhaps the greatest trend contractors and vendors need to be aware of is that budgets for school security are increasingly being slashed,” said Kenneth S. Trump, M.P.A., president, National School Safety and Security Services, Cleveland.
While school districts often see an increase in funding following school shootings, school security funding has always been shaky and, in the past three years, has even been reduced, Trump said.
“When you add these budget woes to the fact that educators have historically been opposed to a significant presence of security equipment,” Trump said, “the future of physical security may not be skyrocketing as many vendors and contractors anticipate after seeing a spate of school shootings on TV.”
On the other hand, highly publicized school violence and terrorism fears have raised the long-term interest in security at schools, but installing the appropriate system generally depends on available funding and is performed as a series of installations over time, instead of all at once.
Video in the school
The number one security tool for public schools and universities is still video, although vendors are offering a variety of other technological solutions.
“Most of our clients have concerns now that are greater than before 9/11 and Columbine,” said Ed Sullivan, director of operations and electrical engineer at engineering firm Quad 3, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Because funding is rarely great enough to fulfill a school district’s wish list, the district has to make compromises. But, video proves to be the most important technology.
“They are definitely more interested in video monitoring than in the past,” Sullivan said.
Contractors with an eye on saving the customer money are the ones most sought after by school districts and colleges to install video monitoring. That savings can include careful selection of appropriate cabling for video surveillance or finding the products with the highest value in terms of application and lowest cost.
“We generally rely on contractors to help engineers find the least costly means of installation,” Sullivan said. “We know what equipment they want, but it’s the contractor we rely on to know the most cost-effective way to do the installation. They know the wiring types, the cabling costs.”
While the cost of technology has dropped in many industries, that hasn’t been the case in security, Sullivan said, although he expects that to change as greater bandwidth makes Internet protocol (IP) networks and wireless solutions possible for school districts.
“I don’t think there’s any question things will change. If wireless becomes prevalent, there will be a huge savings [for the districts],” he said.
College safety compliance
For universities, there may be requirements to increase their security. They need to be in compliance with the Cleary Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information regularly about campus crime and security policies. All public and private institutions of postsecondary education participating in federal student aid programs are subject to this law. Catherine Bath, executive director of Security on Campus—a non-profit organization for prevention of college and university campus crime—estimated that about 50 percent of colleges are in compliance with that act. The others know they have to catch up eventually, and it is often a matter of locating the funds to make it happen. Security on Campus promotes the use of technology for campus security.
“Schools want to be seen as safe,” Bath said. “The budget is the constraint.” Security on Campus will work with schools to improve their security systems, she said. The organization has a good relationship with some colleges in the United States, including the University of Pennsylvania, which Bath said has an admirable video surveillance system at its campus.
In public schools, funding can be an even greater problem, while the need for surveillance is just as great. One security system installed by the progressive Pittsburgh Public Schools district includes video monitoring in all of its 50 school buildings, starting with the high schools. When the system is complete, all buildings will be able to tie their video recordings back to one central location operated by the school district’s police force.
The security system in Pittsburgh, designed by Quad 3, includes video coverage both inside and outside of buildings. The redundant coverage allows viewing from two angles at every public gathering point such as hallways, gymnasiums and cafeterias.
“Each camera looks at another camera,” Sullivan said, adding that this provides two images of everything that happens there. The perimeter includes cameras looking out at every doorway and at public spaces such as sidewalks leading to the school.
Having the proper design and support from engineers and contractors is essential, said Vidya Patil, Pittsburgh school district chief of construction, Facilities Division. The Pittsburgh schools began their security project with one engineering firm, then switched to another when the first one failed to tailor the system appropriately to the district’s needs.
“When it comes to schools, you need to sit down and design a system specific to that school,” Patil said. Not only does the system need to provide safety, it also needs to take into consideration privacy issues. “We’re not there to monitor teachers,” he said. “And we can’t put surveillance in toilet rooms.”
However, Pittsburgh Public Schools installed smoke detectors hardwired to the security system in all bathrooms, so if smoke is detected, cameras outside the bathroom record who comes out.
The cameras are also linked to motion detection and door openings and programmed to begin recording on activity. In each school, camera monitors are placed in a central location for the security officer in addition to several monitors for the principal, office staff and even the night custodian.
Integrated access control
At both public school and college level, video surveillance is beginning to be integrated with access control. This can be useful in the case of an intruder in the school where police or school officers can use features to electronically secure the facility one layer at a time, said Scott Howell, manager of Worldwide Marketing, Hirsch Electronics Corp., Santa Ana, Calif. Specific door readers can be disabled to prevent a suspect from moving deeper into the campus.
At colleges, Howell said, Hirsch uses its product to create database links between the security system and the administration’s main student enrollment system.
“These database linkages enable easy, automated card or personal identification number [PIN] code issuance for tens of thousands of students at a time as necessary, as the school term ends and begins,” Howell said. The linkages also enable schools to restrict students’ cards or PIN codes so they can only get into rooms and labs for classes in which they are enrolled.
If students drop classes or fail to pay tuition, the system can revoke the appropriate building access privileges automatically, Howell said. The Hirsch system also allows for integration of the access control and campus card system for cafeteria or bookstore purchases from a single identification credential.
Howell said Hirsch is also called on to protect high-risk university areas such as biological and chemical labs, data centers and nuclear-related areas. “As part of their research activities, many universities have lethal viruses, anthrax, etc., on campus. A high-security system is essential in these areas,” Howell said. Visitor control is another priority for school districts. The Broward County School District is using an electronic visitor management system installed by Johnson Controls to keep intruders out.The district applied for and received two $500,000 grants under the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. It then supplemented this with its own resources from the overall budget. The network-wide system provides electronic tracking of visitors as they enter and exit school sites. For example, if a visitor leaves one building and enters another, that individual’s attempts to gain access will be recorded. It can also serve as a district-wide messaging center, sending an immediate Amber Alert, weather warning or other emergency to every workstation in the network. Contractors working in schools and colleges can expect to see more systems like these soon due to regulations such as the Cleary Act and the availability of at least minimal federal funding. The bottom line: To get the work, engineer the system to the specific application and make sure the value is there for the customer.
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.