Video Surveillance On Demand in Schools

One New York school district installed cameras with eyelids, protecting students' and staffers' well-being and privacy.
by | November 15, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

In New York's Port Washington Union Free School District, a community on the north shore of Long Island, faculty members tend to be proactive rather than reactive. Instead of waiting for an on-campus incident that might require police involvement to occur and then installing security cameras for future incidents, the district has already put cameras in place. Those cameras strike the right balance between security and privacy for students and faculty.

"We really haven't had the kind of incidents [that called for video security] -- this isn't a knee-jerk reaction to something," says David Baylen, the district's IT director. "We're trying to be proactive and use technology in a manner that enhances our current security measures in the buildings."

That balance is possible thanks to security cameras that come complete with "eyelids." Last December, video cameras donated by New York-based SituCon Systems were installed in the main lobby at two of the district's seven schools. The cameras are equipped with proprietary eyelids for privacy. When the camera is in privacy mode, the eyelid is closed. A staff member, however, can open the camera's eyelid in case of an emergency with a special key, which alerts the local police station and allows officers to see the video feed..

At the same time, district staff members receive a text message or e-mail alerting them that there is an incident. "The notion is kind of like a video 911," says Baylen. "It is really meant to provide video security on demand when you feel you need it. ... In the event that there's a situation that requires emergency response, they immediately have video access to what is going on."

When the alert shows up in the local 911 call center, a screen loads with information about the person who activated the camera, along with his or her photograph and a call-back number, explains Baylen. Once police arrive on scene, officers in patrol cars have security software on their laptops, allowing them to connect wirelessly and monitor the cameras. "If there was an incident and they need to respond, they can actually see what's going on before they enter the building," Baylen says.

The eyelid cameras help police focus on real emergencies. Baylen noted that if school cameras are consistently on, police officers don't necessarily know if they are looking at a school with kids playing or a problem situation. "There's a fatigue factor if you have cameras on all the time," he says. "When there is an emergency, you have the ability to invite emergency responders into the environment electronically."

Should a faculty member raise the eyelids accidentally, Baylen says the police will still respond. The district can always call officers back and say, "'No, nevermind.' And they feel the same way; they want to be there to provide assistance if needed."

The district is looking to integrate its hard-wired panic button at each school's main entrance into the system so that in the event an administrator can't open the cameras, a silent alarm could be deployed, much like in a bank robbery situation. "Likewise, we are looking to integrate it into our alarm system so that when the building is in the alarm mode at night the cameras would automatically open," says Baylen.

Baylen says he hopes to expand the installation to two of the school district's three remaining elementary schools. "We are looking for community-based funding sources since this is not something we've budgeted for," he says. "I'm sure they'll be very cooperative in helping us with this -- the manufacturer and our community really step up to the plate and help with special projects."

Baylen also hopes that there may be opportunities to use the cameras for more than security reasons. One possibility is having the cameras be used for distance learning. "We are far from that, but there's a lot of potential here," he says.

This article first appeared in sister publication, Government Technology magazine.


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