Intelligence helps squeeze the most out of existing school surveillance

SITUATION: Like many other school districts throughout the country, gambling, fights and vandalism are among the problems facing the Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS). Not to mention trespassing, loitering, bullying and other illicit activities that distract from education.

With one of the largest school districts in the country, Miami-Dade has more than 300 schools and a police force more than 200 strong to combat these types of incidents. But it's still not enough manpower to watch over all the schools, around the clock.

"Like any other large metro school district or urban school district, we have the same safety concerns as any other -- and that is the simple fact that we've got an incredible number of students and staff and people to protect, and just don't have enough people do it," said Charles J. Hurley, Interim Chief of Police for the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department and District Security.

It's a problem schools around the country grapple with each day. In fact, 78 percent of schools experienced one or more incidents of violent crime in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, many of the schools were equipped with traditional video surveillance technology to help reduce crime and other incidents. But that often meant a single person had the impossible task of watching dozens of screens at once, Chief Hurley said. They needed a solution that would work with their existing technology and staff to help make the schools safer.

"Miami-Dade County Public Schools' number one focus is on education," said Luis Garcia, Project Manager, Capital Task Force, M-DCPS. "However, we also know how very important it is to have a safe and secure environment for the students to learn in. We fully understand and recognize the fact that there needs to be a secure and safe environment for the students to be educated."

SOLUTION: The Miami-Dade County Public Schools' existing surveillance system served as a strong foundation for adding resources. Enter Phoenix IVS, a provider of intelligent video security systems, and ObjectVideo, the leader in video analytics technology.

Phoenix IVS's system embedded with ObjectVideo OnBoard has taken Miami-Dade County Public Schools' existing technology to a new level. Using video analytics technology, the cameras can convert video to data in real-time through the detection, classification and tracking of activities. For instance, the software can automatically detect potentially suspicious behavior and send real-time alerts to security, eliminating the need for constant human monitoring of video footage.

"This is a perfect example of how a manufacturer can enable a much more complete solution with the incorporation of intelligence," said Brian Baker, vice president, sales & services for ObjectVideo. "End users like Miami-Dade Public Schools are taking strong steps to protect their students and staff with the help of Phoenix IVS."

Miami-Dade County Public Schools installed this technology in Miami Northwestern Senior High School. One of the largest high schools in Miami, the school has 1,700 students and 150 faculty and staff. There are 10 security personnel on staff, and the high school is manned by police officers from the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department. There are 120 cameras keeping a watchful eye on the school as well.

By updating this system with Phoenix IVS and ObjectVideo's solution, the cameras' capabilities extend far beyond providing hundreds of video feeds for one person to watch simultaneously.

The system can now alert authorities to security threats in real time, respond to and deter threats, act on visual intelligence, monitor broader areas with less manpower and create the perception of having a much larger police presence.

"Having each and every camera enhanced by our solution adds to that police force and basically adds another officer constantly vigilant and constantly watching a specific area for an event," said Adrian Esquivel, technology director of Phoenix. "It creates an awareness among every student in the school that they are being watched. There is this presence in the school that can detect when maybe they are dong something they shouldn't be doing."

Alerts are sent to school authorities both during and after school hours if an illicit event is occurring, such as someone trying to enter school grounds at night or on the weekends. The technology is also especially useful during "critical movement times," such as class changes, lunchtime, and the opening and closing of the school day when pedestrian traffic is at its highest and events most often occur.

With the technology doing the monitoring, tracking illicit activities has become a much more manageable task for the school staff. Take the security employee at Miami Northwestern Senior High School who has handled video surveillance monitoring for the past several years. Her job was to watch 120 cameras providing video in split screens on about 10 monitors – a daunting, if not impossible, task. One problem she faced was students not going to class and hiding in stairwell areas that were out of view of the cameras. Now, the cameras count the seconds that students enter and exit the stairwells. If someone doesn't leave shortly after they come in, an alert is raised and the employee is notified.

"They've been able to significantly reduce the fact that kids have been smoking, hanging out, playing cards in those areas where we've put the system," Esquivel said.

BENEFITS: The system has allowed authorities to prevent problems before they occur, rather than waiting to react to graffiti or a school fight once it's already in progress. Just having the technology in place keeps students from acting out because they know there's a good chance of getting caught.

"The students' awareness and knowledge that someone is watching has significantly reduced incidents of inappropriate behavior. The immediate alarms, notifications and tagging of such events have provided invaluable assistance in the gathering of evidence that has been critical to site administrators and the schools police force," Garcia said. "Incidents of violence, theft, vandalism, and those types of behavior, have been reduced."

Indeed, the number of serious incidents at Miami Northwestern Senior High School fell 34 percent in the 2007-08 school year. In the school gym and cafeteria, where intelligent video solutions were deployed, the number of incidents was cut by 50 and 75 percent, respectively, in the 2007-08 school year.

"We had a lot of instances where we had hallway gambling and we've seen a reduction in that," Chief Hurley said. "The number of fights that occur now in our school have been reduced dramatically. The number of incidents overall have also seen a drastic reduction."

Chief Hurley said the system has allowed his staff to focus their attention on areas that the technology identifies as concerns. While students often know with traditional video security systems that not everyone is being watched at all times, this system is different, he said.

"You get more juice for your squeeze with this type of a system," Chief Hurley said.

The cost-saving benefits give the technology an added value. Crime prevention eliminates the cost of replacing items that have been vandalized. Additionally, a school district that does not have the money to hire additional manpower can use the system to help bolster their police presence.

Rather than replacing the school's existing security system, the Phoenix IVS solution embedded with ObjectVideo's analytics can be applied to the existing infrastructure, keeping investment costs to a minimum.

"It leverages the investment they've already made in that system," Esquivel said. "It just makes them better."

Miami-Dade Schools agree. They've decided to widen the use of the video analytics security technology throughout the district. It is currently being installed in new schools that are getting new surveillance systems. Esquivel said the administration sees the value of the technology and is committed to pushing it out throughout the district over time – a prospect that thrills Chief Hurley.

"I'd like to add another two dozen of these systems. I'd like to have these in all of our high schools. With the budget cuts and the fact that we just don't have enough police officers in our schools, this is the next best thing," Chief Hurley said. "It doesn't take the place of an officer, but it's a heck of a nice complement."

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Security Today.

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