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The School Year in Pictures

Camera surveillance systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in schools, especially at the high school level. Is this a good use of a school district’s limited financial resources? To learn more about how and why school districts use surveillance systems, the author undertook a research project looking at how the use of camera systems is increasing in public schools, the influence of cost on camera use, and whether actual or perceived crime is affected.

Information was gathered in three ways: through a written questionnaire, through visits to several schools, and through interviews with school administrators, systems vendors, and law enforcement officials.

Survey. For the first phase of the study, the author sent 107 questionnaires via e-mail to school districts throughout the state of Texas, randomly selected from the state’s 20 Regional Education Service Centers. (Not all centers are represented in the results, however, because, within certain centers, no districts returned completed surveys.) Also, the author distributed surveys to school administrators and police officers at various seminars and training sessions throughout Texas. Forty completed surveys were returned.

Use and cost. Of the 40 responding districts, 30 indicated that they used cameras in at least some schools; nine of the remaining ten said they were considering them. All nine indicated that cost was the primary reason why they did not have cameras. (The other district indicated that it did not perceive a need for cameras.)

Also considered were the grade levels at which cameras are used: Cameras were most often installed at high schools (66 percent of respondents with cameras used them at this level). Use at junior high schools ranked second (50 percent), while use at intermediate and elementary levels (6.66 percent each) was significantly lower.

Reason for installation. Twenty-three districts listed crime as one of the primary reasons for having cameras, and 12 listed it as the only reason. Similarly, the nine districts that said they did not have cameras but had considered them named crime prevention as one of their motivations; for five of the nine, it was their only reason. Other reasons cited as instrumental in the decision to install cameras included their unobtrusiveness, ease of use, effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness when compared with other options (such as increased personnel).

Technology. The survey also sought to determine the extent to which cameras were combined with other technologies: specifically, whether audio or metal detectors were simultaneously used.

Twenty-three of the school districts with cameras did not use audio in conjunction with cameras. Only four districts had incorporated audio, and three had considered it an option.

Additionally, 37 percent of respondents with cameras used metal detectors; 30 percent used both only in some schools; 33 percent did not use metal detectors at all.

A follow-up question asked whether the use of metal detectors was daily or random. Of the 20 districts with metal detectors and cameras, only one district said that usage was daily; the others indicated that their use was random.

Placement. Another survey question addressed the placement of cameras within schools. Almost all districts use them in hallways and cafeterias and at entrances. In addition, cameras monitored parking lots in 25 of the 30 districts with cameras. Four had placed cameras in classrooms. Assorted other locations were mentioned, such as libraries, restroom entrances, and administrative offices.

Effectiveness. The survey asked a series of questions regarding crime statistics and perceptions to assess the impact of the cameras on crime. Eighteen of the 30 districts with cameras kept crime statistics before and after cameras were installed. Sixteen of the 30 districts said that overall crime levels were lowered by the camera installation; ten were uncertain; and four said they were not affected. All four “no” answers came from districts that did not keep statistics before or after cameras were installed.

Respondents were also asked whether cameras had prevented crimes; 16 districts stated that they thought crimes and other negative actions, such as food fights, had been prevented because students were aware of the cameras.

The survey asked if any crimes had been solved as a result of cameras. Twenty-eight of the districts indicated that the systems had helped solve crimes; only one said there weren’t any crimes solved, and one said they were uncertain. (More on this later.)

The final question in this series dealt specifically with the perception of crime, asking respondents whether they had measured attitudes or feelings regarding safety and, if so, whether these had changed. The author hypothesized that the presence of cameras would help change the mind-set of students, staff, and the general public from a belief that crime was substantial to one that crime was being reduced. Results bore this point out; 70 percent of districts with cameras felt that the overall perception of the crime level had been positively influenced by the installation of cameras. For the other nine districts, the effect was unknown.

Behavior. Every administrator interviewed as a supplement to the survey stated that overall student behavior had improved greatly with the addition of cameras. They said that cameras resulted in less hugging and kissing and other inappropriate behaviors as students walked down the hallways in high schools, for example. In addition, they said that food fights in cafeterias with cameras had become rare. And cameras helped resolve disputes where parents were in denial about their child’s actions; the parents were immediately quieted when presented with a video of their offspring’s involvement. 

On location. To supplement the information collected in the survey, the author visited three school districts where cameras were in use: The Spring I.S.D. (Independent School District) Police Dispatch office, Cypress-Falls High School in the Cypress-Fairbanks I.S.D., and Buckalew Elementary in the Conroe I.S.D.

Observations began in late 2001 and ended in April 2002. Spring I.S.D. had the oldest of the three systems visited; Cypress-Falls had one of the most high-tech and, therefore, the most costly. Buckalew Elementary had the newest system; in addition, the I.S.D. in which it falls was then actively researching the installation of cameras districtwide, primarily as a result of the success of camera use at Buckalew Elementary.

Spring I.S.D. Seventeen miles north of Houston, Spring I.S.D. covers 57 square miles and serves approximately 27,000 students. If the current rate of growth continues, the district will have 40,000 students by 2011. The district has its own certified police department with 38 officers, who oversee round-the-clock operations to monitor burglar and fire alarms and CCTV camera views.

Between all of its schools, support facilities, and a new police department facility, the district uses more than 500 cameras. Of the three districts visited, Spring I.S.D. had been using cameras the longest, at least six years. Its chief of police is a strong proponent of cameras. He was instrumental in obtaining support for the original installation, and he has pushed for upgrades over the years.

Spring I.S.D. was the only place visited that had a system with audio capability, and both the video and audio were tied to the various buildings’ burglar alarm systems. For example, when an alarm sensor was activated at a site, the nearest camera was activated as well. An image was immediately transmitted to the school district’s police station via telephone modem, along with the alarm notification and the audio signal. With all this information at hand, police dispatchers could almost immediately determine whether an alarm event was valid.

The audio added a tremendous dimension to the security systems: Even if slightly out of view of the camera, persons talking nearby on site could still be heard by the police dispatcher. The ability to follow the movement of persons within a building as they tripped intrusion sensors and activated audio/video systems allowed police dispatchers to communicate critical information via radio with responding officers. Officers could arrive at the site and immediately move to the suspects’ location within the building, making apprehension more likely and improving officer safety.

The system is currently being upgraded to transmit signals via an existing fiber-optic wide area network (WAN) rather than the slower telephone modem. The change eliminates dialing delays and increases the system’s reliability and image transmission speed. Spring I.S.D. is also converting all its analog systems to digital. This technology allows patrol officers and school administrators to access any of the digital cameras via hand-held computers or PCs.

Cypress-Falls H.S. Next visited was Cy­press-Falls High School, one of eight high schools in the Cypress-Fairbanks I.S.D., which borders the city of Houston. Enrollment at the school as of September 2002 was just over 3,000 students (for the entire district, attendance totaled more than 71,000 students).

In the 1999-2000 school year, Cypress-Falls installed a prototype digital camera system as a pilot study to help the I.S.D. assess whether to install similar systems throughout the district. The agreement between the I.S.D. and the company that designed the system stated that the company would install the hardware and software and maintain it for a period of time, in exchange for the ability to test the technology there and use it as a demonstration model to sell the system to other school districts. (The system has since been turned over to the district; however, the district has not yet chosen to install similar equipment at any other district location.)

The system, which upgraded an existing analog system, was able to use some of the existing analog cameras. By the time the system was in operation, it included 45 fixed cameras and one pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera, the majority of which now are digital. Of the fixed cameras, 14 were black and white, located outside in parking areas and around the perimeter of the building. The remaining fixed cameras were color and placed at various locations around the interior of the building, typically wherever groups of students converged. The one PTZ camera was sited in a common area where lunches are served and large assemblies are held.

Among the noteworthy features in use at this school were the fully digital cameras, each carrying its own Internet protocol (IP) address, which makes it possible to access each camera via the Internet by entering user name and password, followed by the IP address of the desired camera.

Images are also sent via fiber-optic local area network (LAN) to an on-site office where they are monitored by a contract deputy from the local constable’s office.

In addition to the LAN, wireless transmission for a limited distance is provided through antennas that are installed at various locations throughout the building. The signal is generally effective for less than one-quarter of a mile, depending on interference, structures, and other factors that impair radio signals. But that is sufficient for the application, which is simply to let administrators, who carry personal wireless receivers, to call up any camera in the building for viewing. Likewise, officers responding to after-hours alarms can view any camera from a properly equipped patrol car once they are within range.

During the visit to Cypress-Falls, administrators related the story of a summer break-in by three students. A patrol unit using one of these remote devices sat outside and watched where the intruders traveled within the building and simply drove to the exit where they were headed. The culprits were immediately apprehended without the officers needing to enter the building, and thanks to the system, authorities also had a video recording for use in court. (All of the camera signals are digitally recorded on a computer hard drive, eliminating the deterioration factor and tape-changing hassles.)

Any user on the district’s WAN who has a computer with the appropriate soft­ware installed can view the cameras. If they are not on the in-house network but are connected to the Internet, they can log onto a secure site with a user name and password to view camera images. 

All three systems visited contain these features, which are typical among newer systems today. In addition, all the systems have the ability to assign various levels of user rights. For instance, if someone is routinely viewing images from a pan-tilt-zoom camera, someone else with a higher authority level could log in and override the other person’s control to respond to an incident, such as a car in the school parking lot being vandalized.

Another link between the three systems is the ability to allow multiple users to view the cameras at the same time, provided for by software installed on the computer used to assign permissions. Also, all of the image storage and retrieval systems at the schools visited were digital. (Cypress-Falls has, and Spring I.S.D. will have, a fully digital system, which offers faster transmission time at a lower cost. The Conroe I.S.D. uses digital cameras and storage but transmits images via analog signal because its WAN is not fully fiber optic.)

Further, all three sites can capture single frames and print the images on photo-quality color printers.

This option proved its worth even while the system was being installed at Cypress-Falls. One day, as one technician was focusing and aiming the camera, another was in the monitoring room evaluating the results; the men were in radio communication with one another. Suddenly, in the image being transmitted, the monitoring technician thought he saw smoke streaming out of a bathroom down the hall from the camera. He alerted the installing technician, who checked the situation and found a trashcan fire, which he extinguished.

Because the camera was recording the event, the technicians were able to retrieve the image of the last person leaving the restroom. They printed a color picture of the suspect. The photo was given to administrators, who took it into the hallway and asked students if they recognized the individual seen in the image. After about five minutes, they had the student’s name; within 15 minutes, they had a confession from the suspect.

Buckalew E.S. The final campus visited was that of Buckalew Elementary, within the Conroe I.S.D., where the author serves as school safety coordinator. The school is located in Montgomery County, about 40 miles north of Houston. One of the fastest growing districts within Texas, there are currently 45 campuses; a new high school is under construction, and major additions are in progress at several existing schools.

The district covers 348 square miles and requires a fleet of 384 buses traveling 26,000 miles each day to transport students to and from school. Buckalew is located within one of the county’s two urban areas; the rest of the district is suburban and rural.

As late as 2000, no schools within the district used cameras. The idea of CCTV use came from several directions. First, a number of administrators were being hired from other jurisdictions that had used cameras; having seen the benefits of cameras in use in a school setting, they all supported the start of similar efforts in the Conroe I.S.D. Additionally, the district’s police department—primarily the chief and the coordinator of school safety (the author)—had researched and were strongly advocating the use of cameras for crime prevention and post-event crime solving.

Buckalew, however, proposed CCTV through its own efforts. Video surveillance efforts there began when 18 portable classrooms, or temporary buildings, were added to the campus. The school had a very active and relatively affluent parent-teacher organization (PTO) that was concerned with the safety of the children who were unsupervised while changing classes and moving between the buildings.

To meet these concerns, the PTO paid for the installation of a basic surveillance system consisting of four cameras, one at each exit of the main building leading to the portables. A monitor was installed at the front desk for the front office secretary. In addition, the teachers in the portable classrooms were able to watch any of the cameras via their computer monitors to see that students sent to the bathroom or front office, for example, went where intended. Teachers can observe the monitors during classroom instruction, and when a child returns past the camera, they know to expect the child back in class shortly. If the student does not immediately enter, the teacher can quickly initiate a search for the student.

Buckalew’s system is similar to that at Cypress-Falls but it can be used without as robust a technological infrastructure as that required by the systems at Cypress-Falls and Spring, which would make it adaptable to other schools in the district. Those two districts are urban and are relatively compact in geographic size. Thus, they are all fully linked together by fiber optics, whereas Conroe’s district is both urban and rural and covers more than 347 square miles. Fiber is simply not yet available to all campuses in the Conroe district, which precludes them from using the same security solution as Cypress-Falls.

In addition to featuring monitors at the front desk and in classrooms, the system archives all video digitally on a computer hard drive and allows users to e-mail entire video clips as well as capture and print images on site and remotely.

The video system is scalable, meaning that the school can expand it as its needs and budget dictate. In addition, none of the hardware used is proprietary. This means that if a problem develops between the school district and the vendor, the district can locate other vendors who can service the system.

Despite the challenges entailed in getting a system installed, the school administrators contacted were in virtually universal agreement as to the benefits of cameras. When appropriately selected and properly installed, they can help curb crime (as well as violations of school codes of conduct). Further, when criminal acts do occur, quality systems provide records to apprehend the perpetrator. When combined with a quality burglar alarm system, cameras provide a tremendous advantage to school districts as well as law enforcement.

Stephen F. Garst, LCC (Leadership Command College), CCPS (certified crime prevention specialist), is a sergeant in the Conroe I.S.D. Police Department and coordinator of school safety for the I.S.D. The author would like to express his gratitude for the assistance of the school and safety professionals interviewed for this article and the invaluable input they provided.