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School Security: Electronic Surveillance

Electronic surveillance is the most commonly misused security tool by school districts. Schools often install surveillance cameras believing they will prevent crimes. In reality, these systems do not reduce crime. But they can be useful when investigating incidents after they occur. A surveillance system that has been properly installed, used and maintained can document events and help identify individuals involved.

To be effective, surveillance cameras must be part of a comprehensive security program that includes access control, visitor programs, student and staff policies and procedures, and communication equipment.

School Surveillance Concerns

Some organizations and individuals have objections to surveillance cameras in any public place. They claim the mere presence of cameras can suggest the school is dangerous, reinforcing fear and undermining the desired climate of the school. While these concerns are important to address within your district, no scientific evidence supports these claims.

Camera Placement

If your district decides that surveillance cameras would be a positive addition to your security program, be prepared to spend some time figuring out which system design will best meet your true needs. Consider placing surveillance coverage in these areas:

  • Commons or other large gathering areas
  • Library or media center
  • Cafeteria
  • Administrative offices
  • Building entrances
  • Outside locker rooms
  • Outside restrooms
  • Parking lots
  • Major hallways
  • Hidden or problem areas

Keep in mind that cameras are not a substitute for an access control system. If you install cameras at building entrances, position them so they record the faces of those entering. While camera coverage of parking lots is typical, you may need advanced equipment if you expect to be able to identify individuals or license plates.


A wide variety of surveillance equipment is available from manufacturers and suppliers. Here are some general guidelines to consider when choosing equipment:

Fixed vs. Pan/Tilt/Zoom Cameras

Fixed cameras cost less, are easier to maintain and reliably document the areas you position them to cover. Pan/tilt/zoom cameras, which can be moved around remotely, cost more and require more maintenance. Because they can move, they may be pointed away from the area where an incident occurs.

Analog vs. Digital

The newer technology of digital cameras comes with a higher price tag and larger storage requirements. Analog cameras cost less and need less storage than digital models. Hybrid systems are also available. These systems take advantage of the higher resolution of digital cameras where more detail is needed and analog cameras where less detail is required.

VCRs vs. DVRs vs. NVRs

Recording and storing camera images is essential to investigating incidents. In the past, cameras recorded at a slow speed to a VHS tape in a VCR, resulting in choppy videos that showed just a few frames per second. Now, a digital format is the preferred method, regardless of whether the camera is analog or digital. A digital video recorder (DVR) or network video recorder (NVR) can be used to accomplish this.

A DVR is a stand-alone device that can have a variety of storage capacities and does not affect district computer network traffic or capacity. However, if surveillance systems are upgraded or requirements change, the existing DVR may not be able to handle the demand.

On the other hand, NVRs are installed on a district's computer network. They use the storage capacity of the network servers to record surveillance images. Due to the required bandwidth of most surveillance systems, this may affect network capabilities and cause computer problems if the network is not large enough.

Avoid Fake Cameras

Fake or nonoperational cameras may increase your liability exposure if they mislead people to believe that areas are being supervised when they are not. If your school does not have surveillance cameras, do not post signs indicating that cameras are present.

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