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Photo illustration by Security Management; Think Stock

Scholastic Surveillance

There’s a growing consensus on the issue of placing security cameras in schools—a recent study found that 72 percent of adults favor the practice. That percentage of support is up 7 percent from a year ago, when 65 percent were in favor of school cameras in a similar survey. 

“This number has risen in recent years, with increased attention on preparedness in handling potential threats,” wrote Dean Drako, president and CEO of Eagle Eye Networks, which commissioned the study. The report compiled surveys from 1,500 respondents from all regions of the United States taken earlier this year. The survey defined schools as preschool/daycare, K-12, and college.  

Asked to cite why respondents saw security cameras as valuable, the most popular reason (cited by 64 percent of respondents) was to “identify criminals and facts after events.” This reason was followed by “real-time insights during emergencies,” at 59 percent, and “deterring crimes,” at 57 percent.   

In addition, 78 percent of respondents said they thought it was important for first responders to be able to access school video during an emergency. “This result signals the high value the community places on ensuring immediate situational awareness during a crisis on campus,” Drako wrote.  

In the report, the top five camera location priorities were at entrances and exits (76 percent), hallways (62 percent), and lunchrooms, playgrounds, and gyms (53 percent). Only a minority of respondents wanted cameras in classrooms (36 percent) and locker rooms and bathrooms (18 percent). 

However, Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, who has worked and consulted on school safety projects across the country, says he now sees a few complicating factors regarding the use of surveillance cameras in schools, based on the many assessments his consulting firm has done for schools from preschool through 12th grade. 

“We often see that schools put cameras in based on a one-time shot in the arm funding—often due to state grants, or a one-time allocation in a capital improvement program,” Trump says. The launch of these new cameras is often featured in press conferences or public announcements. 

But then, when the cameras need to be fixed or replaced three or four years down the road, the school district has no budget allocation at either the individual building or district level for repair or replacement. The cameras can then sit dormant for months, or even longer, while “parents, students, and staff are under the impression that cameras are functioning when they are not,” he explains.  

  Trump himself believes that cameras can be a useful tool in overall school security. “Cameras deter those who can be deterred,” he says.  And their footage can serve as evidence in some cases. “They serve a role, but there are limitations,” he adds.   

  Trump also says that, in his assessments, he has found an overall trend that some schools are putting disproportionately more emphasis on hardware and products, and less “on the people side” of school security. “School leaders are well-intended, but there is a lot of political pressure to do this,” he says. “And certainly there are a lot of opportunistic vendors.” 

“Many school administrators will throw up some cameras to fortify their front entrance,” he continues. “But the reality is, it is what is behind those fortified walls that really makes up the heart of your school security program—which is your people.” 

Of course, investing in “the people side” of school security takes time and money, he says. It often means professional development training not just for teachers and administrators, but for support staff: the bus drivers, who are the first and last ones to see students every day. Secretaries who might take a call from someone making a bomb threat. Custodians and food service staff, who may be the first ones to notice any strangers on campus. “They are on the front lines,” he says. “They should be included in tabletop exercises, along with the first responders.”  

However, training and development for all staff takes a funding investment, and some districts find it cheaper to buy more hardware instead. In addition, Trump says that he has been seeing another trend—hardware and product vendors in some states lobbying state legislators to put school security and emergency planning into the hands of homeland security officials, and out of hands of the school administrators, which could thwart training and development. 

In the Eagle Eye survey, a majority of the respondents (56 percent) said they believe that visible security cameras would reduce bullying in schools. Again, however, Trump says that while cameras can be an effective component of an antibullying program, “the first and best line of defense is a well-trained and highly alert staff and student body.” Unlike a camera, staff can “see things that are invisible,” such as dynamics between students, which indicate potential or possible bullying. Technology can be a supplement, but not a substitute, for this. 

Strong security programs continue to be sorely needed, as violent fatalities continue to be a problem in schools. Another recent report, which looked at the 2012-13 school year (the latest data available), found that nearly 3 percent of violent deaths among American school age youth took place at school or school-related environments. 

The report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015, is a joint effort from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice. It found that, in the period from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, there were a total of 41 school-associated homicides in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, slightly less than 3 percent of the total number of school-age homicides in America.   

The 3 percent figure has stayed consistent since annual statistics were first compiled for the 1992-93 school year. Authors of the study indicated that the percentage, although low, was still unacceptable. “Our nation’s schools should be safe havens for teaching and learning, free of crime and violence,” the authors wrote.