Violent episodes in schools have led educators and legislators to make safer schools a priority. Suggestions on how to do this have proceeded on many different tracks. One of the more controversial methods is video surveillance of students.

School video surveillance systems generally consist of cameras in areas (interior and exterior) where they can monitor activity as it takes place. With a digital video recorder, images are easy to store, recall and view.

Proponents of cameras say video surveillance provides peace of mind for students and staff. Security experts and administrators say students and teachers seem to appreciate the increased sense of security.

One advantage that can be measured is a reduction in property damages and theft. Schools using cameras also attribute better student behavior to the monitoring. Cameras aren't going to eliminate unwanted activities, but the knowledge of their presence can act as a powerful deterrent.

Schools considering cameras should answer these questions:

  • Which specific security issues and concerns are you trying to address ?

  • How will cameras help address those issues, and how will the school use them on a day-to-day basis?

  • Who will have access to the information recorded by the cameras?

  • What types of cameras should be installed, and where will they be placed?

Choosing the correct camera can be difficult. Two of the most common configurations are fixed and pan-tilt-zoom. Fixed cameras are mounted in a stationary position and view the same scene until relocated or redirected.

Pan-tilt-zoom cameras can operate in either of two modes. The most useful mode allows the view to be controlled by a school employee. A zoom option allows closeups of parts of a scene. The second mode for pan-tilt-zoom cameras is tour mode, in which a camera automatically scans back and forth.

For most school security applications, fixed cameras are a better choice. One consideration is that a pan-tilt-zoom camera can cost eight to 10 times as much as a comparable fixed camera. More important is the fact that pan-tilt-zoom cameras can consume the time of a security staff member. And, when a pan-tilt-zoom camera is in tour mode, it may be viewing the wrong area during an incident.

Weighing these considerations, most schools will find installation of many fixed cameras more cost-effective than a single pan-tilt-zoom camera.

One of the hardest issues for schools to assess is the number of cameras and where they should be situated. It is not unusual to find high schools with 100 or more cameras. This is expensive, and an individual sitting at a monitor can view a maximum of 16 cameras at any one time. Essential locations for camera placement are entrances, common areas, student lockers and parking areas.

Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Bloomington, Ind., a firm specialized in educational facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at bday@kbdplanning.com. www.kbdplanning.com