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School CCTV System Passes With Flying Colors

After tragedies like 9/11 and Columbine High School, officials at Newtown (Conn.) High knew video surveillance was needed to protect its students, staff and property. Although met with initial concerns about cost and privacy, the system has proven effective in reducing delinquency and saving thousands of dollars.




The effects of events like Sept. 11, 2001 and the Columbine High School tragedy of April 1999 are long lasting — and far-reaching. While seemingly localized on the surface, the implications of these tragedies reach across the world and are still felt today.

One of the environments most affected by these events is schools, where the need for increased security and the protection of people and property resonates stronger everyday in a post-9/11 and post-Columbine world. More and more school officials are turning toward advanced security like CCTV surveillance.

While the need is obvious, such security suggestions are often met with adversity. Privacy advocates might argue about the implications of a CCTV system in a school. What do cameras represent? Do they violate a basic right to privacy that students, teachers and staff share under the U.S. Constitution? Do they make people feel like they’re under suspicion?

Legal experts might wonder if a school could be sued for using cameras. Financially minded opponents might argue about expenses: How much does video surveillance cost? Where will the money come from to pay for it?

When Newtown (Conn.) High School officials began working to implement a CCTV surveillance system, Security Director Richard Novia encountered all these obstacles. Still, with creativity, good policy-making and help from a consulting firm, Newtown’s surveillance system has answered its critics, proving to be effective in both cost and function.

String of Events Justifies Costs, Privacy Threats of CCTV System
Set in the rolling hills of the Berkshire Mountains, Newtown, Conn., is a beautiful community located in Fairfield County — the wealthiest county in the U.S. — from which executives commute daily to Wall Street and Madison Avenue. The center of town, dating to 1705, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite the picturesque setting, officials at Newtown High School, which educates 1,500 students, were particularly mindful of security after the tragedies of 9/11 and Columbine. As a result, Novia began researching an updated emergency response plan and soon set his sights on a video surveillance system. After viewing film footage of the Columbine massacre, it was clear a LAN-based video surveillance system would be of help to first responders because they could remotely access hallways, lobbies and other internal areas to monitor any problems.

Novia conducted weekly workshops for teachers and staff and promoted the idea of cameras with Superintendent John Reed and business executive Ron Bienkowski. While there was initial reluctance to the idea of school cameras, Novia pointed out that their presence would equal 10 security officers patrolling the school corridors on a 24/7 basis. This was important since there had been behavioral violations during the school day and theft and vandalism in the off-hours.

Before any of these concerns could seriously be addressed, a string of unlucky events occurred. A fire destroyed a school restroom. It contaminated the ventilation system and destroyed wired systems, causing the facility to be closed. Then, somebody flooded the third-floor science labs. Water ran down the walls and collapsed ceilings on the floors below, causing the closure of the building’s entire wing. Repairs amounted to $500,000.

Novia investigated and identified the culprits, who chalked the capers up as pranks. The students were arrested, but all attempts at restitution through the courts were of little economic benefit to the school. By now, the idea of video surveillance, despite its costs and privacy implications, wasn’t so far-fetched to school personnel and the Board of Education.

Novia researched the cost of a video surveillance system and was presented with six estimates in the $100,000-or-more range. Still, the proposals did not meet Novia’s requirements after he invested a great deal of time educating himself on networks, digital systems, site analyses and surveillance operations. Further, many of the offerings involved “no-name” brands he did not trust.

School Had Specific Needs, Requirements for System
Novia calls himself a “control freak” for doing his best every day to protect people and assets while not interrupting the education process. Because he protects teenagers from each other as well as from outside threats, he wanted a system that was in-house, self-contained and tamper-proof.

It had to deliver safe and secure storage of high-resolution images while providing instant review. It also had to be user-friendly because school personnel who might use it are educators, not necessarily “techies.” Lastly, it had to be maintained by existing security staff in collaboration with the school’s IT department.

As Novia puts it, security industry research and consulting firm J.P. Freeman Co. then “fell out of the sky.” Through his reading of Security Sales & Integration, he discovered the company — and it was right here in Newtown. The firm met with Novia, informed him of the great video systems now on the market and, as a resident of Newtown with an interest in the school’s welfare, offered to do a site survey.

J.P. Freeman Co. suggested to Novia that he attend the next American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) trade show to gain more industry knowledge. It then presented him with a system design that he said surpassed his expectations. It was state-of-the-art technology offered by some of the best names in video security. The company offered him the opportunity to test each product before any purchase was made.

Superintendent Reed; principal Bill Manfredonia; vice principal Jules Triber; and Bienkowski, the business executive, met with J.P. Freeman Co. to discuss the system. The company described it as a test of what can be accomplished with a custom-designed surveillance system using first-class products from leading manufacturers. The companies interested in participating in the test were Panasonic of Secaucus, N.J.; Clovis, Calif.’s Pelco; Toshiba of Irvine, Calif.; and Surrey, British Columbia, Canada’s Silent Witness (now part of Honeywell).

Since the system was an unplanned budget item, the school decided to have its electrical contractor run the Cat-5e in the removable ceilings and terminate it at the surveillance and control points. Even with that cost-saving measure, the school could find only enough money for 32 cameras and three DVRs out of the 48 cameras and six DVRs the company felt necessary to provide full coverage.

Panasonic provided the DVRs, and Pelco, Toshiba and Silent Witness/Honeywell, the cameras. The Pelco cameras were outdoor pan/tilt/zoom models, the Toshibas were both indoor and outdoor units, and the Silent Witness equipment was solely for interior use. The equipment was paid for, rather than gifted, to maintain real market conditions for the test. J.P. Freeman Co. also made provisions for Novia to receive instruction at manufacturer locations.

Installation Provokes Students Eager to Buck the System
The school’s investment was publicized in area newspapers, leading to mixed reviews by parents and school personnel still concerned about privacy as well as, undoubtedly, inciting a challenge to some prank-oriented students. Before the cameras, the school normally assembled weekly reports of items missing or damaged and of unknown persons wandering the campus.

Broken windows and vandalism were common events, and with a $10,000 property insurance deductible and no suspects, the school could not recover repair costs. Consequently, the annual damage/repair budget was $30,000. Once the video surveillance system was installed, the $30,000 annual expense almost disappeared, and the unspent funds are now devoted to new and improved doors and other school security items.

Then the real test started. In a community of fairly well-to-do students, 90 percent of whom will attend college, it was inevitable that some clever students might want to prove something. Some might have peer-pressure problems and need to express their personalities; others simply don’t like regimentation or discipline and might be inclined to destroy it when they can. After installing the cameras, several incidents were recorded.

Custodians found two smashed skylights over the school’s Olympic-sized pool. There were sneaker prints on the broken skylight frames. This could have been lethal since a fall from the roof could easily have ended in death. The cost of repair was $4,000. Just a few hours later, three youths were identified in the video footage and arrested.

Compensation was made for the damage. The culprits couldn’t believe they were caught in the video. One said, “it was dark and we went around the cameras.”

One student was mad at another and keyed both sides of the other’s new car. With the act caught on video from the outside PTZs overlooking the parking lot, the guilty boy agreed to a lengthy suspension and paid $2,800 to repaint the new car.

A creative student had been lurking in the halls, drawing lewd pictures on the corridor walls. Dressed in a large shirt and hood to hide identity, a blond tress suddenly fell from the hood and a camera revealed that the culprit was a girl, not a boy. Apprehension soon followed.

A known sex offender drove onto the campus and entered through a rear door left open for field activities.

He was literally caught with his pants down watching girls participate in an athletic event in the gym. He fled but was apprehended. He remained in denial until his adventure was revealed frame-by-frame in the passing video of 12 cameras that tracked him constantly. The footage was turned over to the courts to document the person as a social menace.

Surveillance Reduces Crime, Poor Behavior On, Off Campus

Students now rarely leave campus without a pass as they commonly did previously, or even smoke a cigarette near a camera. Substance abuse and aggressive behavior have declined. Bullying in the weight room has stopped, and the campus is now graffiti-free. Locker-room theft has been virtually eliminated with none reported at all so far in 2004 after several arrests were made. Access control with traditional, mechanical doors is now easier since all doors are under surveillance.

One video capture did not even occur on school grounds. Across the street from the school, more than 100 yards away, is a foreign car garage where a man tried to steal a car from the lot. The camera caught him breaking into the car, and he was arrested. It is now not uncommon for a teacher or school executive to inquire, after an event occurred, “Did the video catch it?” Inevitably, the answer is yes.

The municipal police in Newtown have an officer assigned to the high school as the school resources officer. The officer’s job is to respond to calls from Novia and other staff members regarding crimes like vandalism and theft. He investigates, makes arrests and determines what legal action should be taken. The working hours of this officer could be used in other areas of law enforcement if the high school did not demand his time. As a result, the officer’s high school time is a cost to Newtown’s residents and is buried in the tax rate.

After the video surveillance system was installed, the officer claimed that the system “not only helped to reduce the crimes that had been so ongoing among the student body, but that it has done a good job of facilitating increased campus safety.”

The success of the video system is now unquestioned. Even when the school decided not to monitor the cameras during school hours to avoid violation of privacy, the system has quelled bad behavior. It alerts students to the constant presence of the cameras, and the afterschool monitoring documents whatever events occurred that day, ensuring enforcement will follow.

All students now feel secure on school grounds, according to Novia. The system has received his complete blessing, and also the eventual approval of the school staff that was originally a bit reluctant to consider video surveillance. No privacy issues have emerged at all. The staff and student body have accepted the positive aspects of the system, and the school has recognized the resulting money saved for the school’s operating budget.

New Equipment Reduced Expenditures in 1st Year

Novia estimates the system has easily paid for itself in only its first year. Unlike guards who must be paid every year, a video system is paid for just once, and those savings extend each succeeding year until the system is upgraded or replaced - in about eight years, according to J.P. Freeman Co.‘s research on the average replacement cycle. With the money the school has saved in its maintenance budgets, it is now ordering 16 more cameras and two DVRs to eliminate some blind spots, expand exterior viewing coverage and enlarge its recording capacity.

Since installation labor was paid from within the school’s existing operating budget, the system equipment itself cost Newtown just less than $60,000 for several products: Panasonic WV-CW474S cameras and WJ-HD500AV/240 DVRs, Pelco PT570P cameras, Toshiba IK645-A cameras and Silent Witness V28R and C12CC600 cameras.

From an objective research perspective on the Newtown experience, there is everything to be gained and nothing to lose from a well-designed system. Although met with initial disapproval, the installation has been a success. “Our goal is to provide a safe environment for our students and staff. We use our video footage only if questions or issues arise with regard to student safety or protection of school property,” Manfredonia said. “We are very pleased with this service and our security system.”

Reed, the now-retired superintendent, echoes Manfredonia’s opinion. “We’ve always been proud of the openness and availability of the high school,” he explains. “Students and parents use the school at many times of day, so we needed to have a record of that activity as well as what transpired during the school day, and I am happy to hear that it has worked.”


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