The post-Sandy Hook education community has seen a heavily skewed response to the shootings with millions of dollars being thrown at physical security measures. School security cameras have often been at the top of the list as state legislators dish out grant money or local districts throw up some new cameras in response to parent questions and demands for tighter security.
There are five critical areas school boards, superintendents and principals should consider before plunging into the arena of school security cameras:
- Conduct an assessment to identify the security threats, risks, vulnerabilities and associated issues you are trying to address by using surveillance cameras. Too often during our school security assessment consulting for school leaders we find cameras located in, or pointing to, areas that appear to serve little-to-no need for them to be located there. Oftentimes the principal tells us that someone at their central office or a vendor decided for those at the building level where the cameras should be installed. The result is that while many districts are using cameras in a reasonable manner, it is not uncommon to see schools where numerous cameras are in questionable locations, not functioning or otherwise not being effectively used as initially anticipated. School leaders should conduct an assessment prior to pursuing security equipment so that they can identify and prioritize security threats, risks, vulnerabilities, location of use, and associated issues that the equipment will be used to attempt to reduce or eliminate.
- Have a clear idea of how the security cameras will be used on a day-to-day basis. Most schools cannot afford to have security personnel or school police performing live monitoring of cameras all school day. The more common practice is for images to be recorded so administrators may go back and review camera footage if and when needed on an issue-by-issue basis. Exceptions may be situations where office support staff use a camera or cameras to monitor access at the main entrance or at other locations such as delivery areas. School leaders should have a plan for what will and will not be monitored live, what type of recording process will be used, image retention capabilities and policies, etc. before they purchase and install the equipment.
- Create a board policy on use of the surveillance cameras. School boards should create a formal policy on security camera use, how facility users will be informed of their use, minimum image retention time periods, release of recorded images to law enforcement, remote monitoring including by law enforcement, and other issues. This will provide a reference point for practice and uniformity within and across schools impacted by the policy.
- Establish, and budget for, a plan to maintain, repair and/or replace surveillance cameras once they are installed. We are seeing schools rush to jump on state grants to buy security cameras after high-profile school shootings. However, once they get these grants and get the equipment installed, administrators find themselves pointing fingers internally as to whose budget will pay for repairs and replacement when the cameras stop working a year or two down the road. We are already seeing a number of local investigative news stories where reporters are getting security camera repairs orders through public records requests, and finding that cameras in some schools sit for months, and sometimes more than a year, before being repaired or replaced. School leaders need to have a long-range vision and plan for sustaining the camera operations long after the initial equipment is purchased using one-time, shot-in-the-arm outside grants.
- Set reasonable community expectations for the role of surveillance cameras and other security equipment. The first and best line of school safety defense will always be a well-trained, highly-alert school staff and student body. Any security equipment should be a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a strong human school security component. Too often we see superintendents, school board members and principals quick to jump in front of a parent group or TV cameras touting that their schools have hundreds of thousands of dollars in cameras. In doing so, they raise the bar of community expectations. When a link in the human chain breaks down the road and an incident occurs in spite of the thousands of dollars in cameras and other security equipment, school leaders find themselves challenged to explain to parents, the media and potentially a judge or jury how an incident occurred after they had raised the bar of community expectations months or years past when touting the surveillance cameras and other security equipment. Setting reasonable school-community expectations up-front by stressing that the equipment is an extra tool but not a panacea is an important part of introducing new security technology into a school setting.
School surveillance cameras and other security equipment can play a meaningful role when properly integrated into an overall comprehensive school safety program. Doing so for the sake of doing something without properly thinking it through from the get-go, however, may potentially increase safety, legal and school-community relations liabilities.
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