At The Front Of The Class

Urban Virginia grade school modernizes with high-tech access control system

Grade schools aren’t often early adopters of cutting-edge surveillance technology, but St. Mary’s School in Alexandria, Va., is an exception. With the safety and security measures it currently has in place, the school is definitely outpacing most educational institutions.

St. Mary’s is a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade elementary and middle school located in urban Alexandria, just outside of Washington, D.C. The 700-student Catholic school occupies two aging but renovated buildings that separate the elementary school (pre-K through fifth grade) and the middle school (sixth grade through eighth grade). As a private school, particularly one in an urban area, St. Mary’s doesn’t hold back when dealing with the safety of its students and strives to make sure its private-school structure remains protected.

Time to Upgrade

St. Mary’s recently sought to upgrade its access control system to better control admission to school facilities. The perfect opportunity presented itself when officials decided to renovate one of the school’s buildings and upgrade another that was built more than a half-century ago.

Janet Cantwell, principal of St. Mary’s, also wanted to reduce the cost and complexity of having to distribute, collect and keep track of staff members’ keys. Collecting keys at the end of the school year and replacing lost keys was, she said, "very labor intensive."

To complicate things further, the school often grants access to parish groups that use the facilities after hours. Through the remodel, St. Mary’s wanted to be able to lend out access-granting badges that could simply be deactivated once the user no longer was using the facilities rather than having to keep track of the traditional keys and replace any lost ones.

“We really wanted to be sure of who was coming and going,” said St. Mary’s information technology director. “We needed the flexibility to temporarily grant access to organizations that ‘rent’ our facilities without having to ask them to return their key later.”

Finally, due to its urban surroundings in the bustling D.C. area, the school also sought to increase the reach of its surveillance system to ensure student safety and to more quickly respond to emergencies. School officials wanted to have better views of the playground, parking lot and surrounding streets to detect any suspicious activity.

“We strive to provide the ultimate level of security for our students while also remaining visitor-friendly and maintaining the character of the school,” Cantwell said. “We saw the opportunity with Next Level to do something more, to bring our system to a more current level and modernize our approach to technology.”

The Perfect Fit

After much research, officials at St. Mary’s found the NLSS Gateway 3000 from Next Level Security Systems to be the ideal platform on which to build a stronger security program. The NLSS Gateway is a security management system that integrates networked video management, IP access control and video analytics into a single unified solution. This unique approach allows data from traditionally separate subsystems to be correlated without custom integration while making combined data available through a single, intuitive user interface. Combining the applications into one appliance gives users a comprehensive view of their entire security operation, which was what St. Mary’s administrators were looking for.

Now, the NLSS Gateway manages the school’s nine Axis Communications cameras, as well as the HID Edge readers that are used to secure the facility’s many access points. This fully integrates and simplifies the school’s access control and video surveillance into one, easy-to-use solution. And, the NLSS Gateway even provides a Web interface for off-site user access.

This type of advanced security system is rare in the school security world and makes St. Mary’s ahead of the curve in terms of student and staff safety.

“Integrating their surveillance with cutting-edge access control makes St. Mary’s a pioneer in private school security,” said Next Level Chairman and CEO Pete Jankowski. “Combining all available information into one easy-to-use platform enables users to make more informed decisions, even if they have a small staff, leading to safer environments.”

And as the school grows, the new security solution can grow with it.

“The flexibility and versatility of the Gateway is the perfect fit for our needs today and into the future,” Syracuse said. “We required a system that would meet our need to simplify access control and video management and provide an opportunity for us to scale the system as needed.”

A Welcome Change

Today, St. Mary’s staff members are issued badges for accessing the facility. The school’s cameras monitor any students who are traveling without a faculty member, ensuring their route is safe and identifying them at access points to allow the staff to buzz them in. In addition, when outside parish groups use the school’s facility during off-hours, St. Mary’s can issue a temporary access card that cannot be copied and does not have to be recollected, so it runs no risk of being lost.

Students and staff feel more secure—and staff members appreciate the system’s ease of use.

“The streamlined access control system was really a big selling point for us, as well as its immediate correlation with the video management piece. That’s what we really wanted,” Cantwell said. “It’s so much easier now to see people come and go, and further ensure the safety of our staff and students.”

In addition to the NLSS Gateway, St. Mary’s also installed an NLSS HD Media Decoder with a 32-inch flat screen monitor in the administration office for visiting parents to view. The decoder is a networked media appliance that can display multiple HD video streams simultaneously to a single monitor in a variety of layouts. The appliance provides staff with a clear view of the video streams from the Axis IP cameras, and it can be controlled remotely through the Gateway Web interface. For parents, this visual representation of the school’s focus on security is a reminder of the administrators’ effort to modernize technology. It has already triggered a positive response.

“We get a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when they see the video display,” said Ann Ross, the office manager at St. Mary’s. “We’ve traditionally been very conservative, so the deployment of the NLSS Gateway has been an exciting change for us.” The students have taken notice, as well. They can clearly see that they are being monitored and have shown appreciation for the high-tech enhancements.

“We use our cameras to monitor the playground at recess, and the students know the cameras are there,” Syracuse said. “Sometimes they’ll stop whatever they’re doing and perform for the camera. They can’t see themselves, but they know we can, and it’s unbelievably cute.”

Always Improving

The school is still in the early stages of its security makeover and plans to implement additional upgrades soon. St. Mary’s staff members have found that Next Level’s easy-to-use platform not only enhances their response time but that it also comes with a support team that is easy to work with.

“The Gateway is very easy to use, but we have needed help on occasion, and their technical support is exceptionally responsive,” Syracuse said. “We strive to be the best of the best in everything we do, and Next Level’s intuitive product has launched us into a whole new level of security for our school.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Security Today.

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