Sarasota School District Graduates to Digital

When the Sarasota County School District identified a need to get serious about video surveillance, administrators chose a hybrid CCTV solution that watches over and protects 43,000 students throughout the K-12 system.

Sarasota County, located on the central coast of Florida, has long been romanticized for its sunshine and proximity to the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, the area attracted some of Florida’s first retirees. In the 1950s and ’60s, however, the county began to attract families who came to the coast for a quiet, affordable beach getaway. Many stayed and took root, and through the years so have many others.

As the county grew, so did its need for educational facilities. Today, Sarasota County’s school system is the largest employer in the county. The district educates about 43,000 students in 50 elementary, middle and high schools and other facilities. While crime at its campuses was mostly limited to vandalism, the district was moved to take much greater preventive action after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

“After Columbine,” says Sean O’Keefe, a security support technician in the telecommunications department at the Sarasota County School District, “we wanted to make our schools more proactive with student safety.”

In 2004, the district called upon an outside vendor to perform a security assessment to update its comprehensive crisis management plans. The vendor assessed every school from the way they locked their doors at night to their fire/life-safety plan. A significant development to come out of the security review was a recommendation to commence an aggressive video surveillance capability.

“The main driving issue is student safety,” O’Keefe says. “If the school is vandalized, what do you do with your students the next day? If the cafeteria is vandalized, how do you feed the students?”

At the time of the assessment, some schools in the district were using time-lapse VCR technology performed with a few cameras. However, the district did not store any footage. Each tape ran its course to the end and then simply rerecorded over the old data. O’Keefe contacted Patrick Kelly, a Central and North Florida territory manager for Southeast Security Products of Pompano Beach, Fla. Kelly provided O’Keefe consultative advice about DVRs. The meeting would eventually lead to the purchase of — and training on — Dedicated Micros products.

School Principals Determined Camera Placement

The installation was designed in two phases. Initially, O’Keefe and his district colleague Tim Butler, who is also a security support technician, met with the principal of each school and asked them for input on where they felt cameras were most needed. As planned, the hybrid CCTV system would use analog cameras, while DVRs would be assigned Internet protocol (IP) addresses and run on the district’s existing wide area network (WAN).

The Dedicated Micros Digital Sprite 2 16-channel DVR was chosen for its high capacity video storage and expandability. While early phases of the installation used Digital Sprite 2 units, as the DVRs became available with NetVu ObserVer software, the school board changed gears and began installing the technologically enhanced units.

The video management software allows district personnel to simultaneously view feeds via a Web browser from multiple DVRs and cameras. Currently, more than half of the district’s 54 DVRs operate with the NetVu ObserVer program. Each of the school locations also use several SPECO Technologies VM-15LCS monitors.

One of the considerations in planning the installation was to ensure reliable operation in a high lightning environment. “We’re 65 miles from Tampa, which is the lightning capital of the world,” says O’Keefe. “There are only three staff members in our department … it’s hard to maintain a district that has hundreds of cameras if you have lightning issues — not to mention the cost of the equipment if it blows up.”

Lightning, however, doesn’t strike glass. Since many of the schools already had a fiber-optic infrastructure, Mother Nature’s electric outbursts in the region do not pose a danger to the district’s surveillance capabilities. The fiber-optic network also offers a fiscal benefit: The district enjoys a significant savings by using the existing backbone in lieu of pulling coax or twisted pair.

“We worked with the principals to meet all their requirements while keeping the project within a decent budgetary amount,” O’Keefe says. “From there, we designed the system, assessing which building had existing fiber-optic cable, where we could collapse the fiber, and if we had room for our rack in the MDF [main distribution frame].”

Systems Integrator Brought on Board Via Procurement Process

Once the design was approved, the security support duo ordered the cable, cameras and DVRs and called in Comco Communications of Pinellas Park, Fla., a local subcontractor for Verizon. The company was selected through Florida’s Telecommunication Infrastructure Projects Services (TIPS) program, a state-managed procurement process that, among other services, provides agencies and municipalities with procurement assistance within the telecommunications arena.

The district used the TIPS program to enhance its current telecommunication infrastructure, including its fiber-optic backbone and copper backbone to complete the CCTV installation. Comco mounted all of the cameras and enhanced the infrastructure work, pulling and terminating additional wires as needed into each closet.

“We ran fiber optics from the backbone to tie the cameras together and ran each camera over RG-6/18-2 coaxial 22-gauge telemetry wire, which allowed for video, power and zoom,” says Mike Bugner, vice-president of Comco. All of the cameras also tie in via an IP-based network to the school district’s main hub in Osprey.

A major installation obstacle, Bugner says, was providing conduit pathways in the schools to mount and weatherproof the cameras. “The most difficult school was Booker High School because it was an old school with more of an open architecture.”

To conceal all the wires, Bugner’s crew had to run about 2,000 feet of exposed conduit that was attached to the concrete structure. Other schools provided challenges as well, with sprawling campuses, multiple two-story buildings, many of which have upward of 200 exits, plus balconies and hidden stairwells. The largest high school campus encompasses 104 acres.

The budget was set per school based on the site, location and individual campus needs. Individual campus budgets range from $40,000 to $50,000 for the smaller elementary and middle schools to as much as $175,000 to $200,000 for larger high schools. Phase one will be complete when the team finishes installations at all of the schools. In addition to the school campuses, cameras were installed at the district’s primary central office complex, along with a full camera installation in the district’s purchasing and central transportation facilities.

District Employs a Take-Charge Philosophy to Surveillance

The school district runs its own central station, monitoring its own alarm systems. It is staffed 24/7 by personnel who can pull up any camera on any DVR in the county using the remote viewing software.

“We also use Dedicated Micros’ CX02-16 C-bus video switcher at some of the smaller locations,” O’Keefe says. “That runs off the RS-232 loop. We run all the DVR outputs into the switcher and all the data goes from the switcher to one monitor.” Using the company’s KBS3 keyboard and keyboard extender, personnel are able to look at any camera on any DVR, all from a single monitor.

The video switcher was rack mounted with the DVRs for a clean installation. The system gives the district the capability to pull up any site in real-time or review up to 30 days of recorded video. Some high school campu
ses have security aides who monitor lunchrooms or bus unloading areas during school hours.

The majority of the high schools thus use the system proactively. If they see someone who stays in a bathroom too long, for instance, an aide will go in to see is happening.

For campuses with no security aides, the district can review incidents after the fact. To date, the school has installed CCTV systems in all five high schools, all eight middle schools and six elementary schools, along with a charter school and a large school for gifted students. Phase two of the project involves returning to each high school to address any needs they might have after the initial installation.

“That may involve moving or adding cameras or replacing some fixed cameras to pan/tilt/zoom (p/t/z),” O’Keefe says. “We have already had wish lists for phase two before we even finished phase one at some locations.”

O’Keefe and Butler maintain the head-end, program the cameras and train designated campus staff on using the DVRs and the software. The pair also regularly attends training sessions and tradeshow seminars to maintain their knowledge base and to stay on top of technological advances.

Presence of New CCTV Solution Proves to Be a Crime Deterrent

By law, the district posts signs in the front of each school, affirming that camera surveillance may be used on the campus. “The CCTV systems have helped the school resource officers be much more efficient in keeping track of what’s going on around the campus,” says Patrick Kelly, a Central and North Florida territory manager for Southeast Security Products of Pompano Beach Fla. Kelly consulted on the project. “In a typical high school, they have 80 cameras, and they can monitor all of them from one location.” One feature of the surveillance system software allows the school to capture an event and zoom in and out on an image, even after it is saved onto the DVR.

Several principals say the cameras have been a huge deterrent, while the security department has already used the digital images to solve numerous crimes. For instance, last spring an individual spray-painted profanity and Satanic graffiti on the walls and sidewalk of an elementary school. The person even spray-painted, “The cameras are watching.” Indeed, they were; multiple cameras clearly identified the culprit’s face. “He came back twice and continued the graffiti,” Butler says, “and he broke a window in a storefront door on campus.”

The security staff reviewed the video and found the man responsible for the damage. When a video clip ran on a local news station, the man’s mother saw it and turned him in.

Then last summer, three teenage students — one dressed as a Ninja — spray-painted graffiti at one of the high schools. Security personnel printed pictures of the trio, who were captured in the act on camera, and disseminated the images to campus employees. When the students returned to school the next day, all three were apprehended. The case was turned over to law enforcement, along with copies of the incident from the DVRs.

“Apparently his Ninja skills weren’t very good,” Butler quipped, “because we saw him wherever he went.”

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District at a Glance

  • District: Sarasota County School District in Florida educates about 43,000 students and has 50 elementary, middle and high schools, plus facilities for gifted students
  • Problem: Vandalism and a desire to prevent possible Columbine-type incidents
  • Solution: Hybrid video surveillance solution featuring 54 16-channel DVRs and mostly fixed analog cameras situated throughout the district’s 50 campuses and other facilities
  • Results: System deters crime, and footage has resulted in the successful apprehension of suspected vandals and other criminals

Joanne L. Harris is a security marketing consultant. She can be reached at punkinmark@mindspring.com.

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