Sales tax funds security upgrade at DeKalb schools
Sales tax funds security upgrade at DeKalb schools

Apr 1, 1999 12:00 PM

Situated on a busy suburban street dotted with fast food joints and gas stations, the DeKalb Alternative School hardly looks like a school. The line of yellow school buses in the parking lot gives away the new use for a former strip mall in suburban Atlanta. A looming iron fence now fronts the commercial facade of what was once a Sports Town store. Aisles of running shoes and sporting equipment have given way to computer labs and classrooms.

With all 400 of its students in grades 4-12 having been expelled from regular public schools for a variety of offenses, the school requires a stable security system. And DeKalb Alternative has provided it with funding from a recently approved county sales tax. More than $3.6 million has been allocated to provide each of the county's 118 schools with $30,000 to spend on surveillance and security equipment. Sixty schools will have security systems by the end of this year; the remainder will get their systems by the end of next year.

The program had its origins in the realization by officials that great strides could be made in the security and safety of every school in the county for less than 25 percent of the cost of one new school. After surveying county security needs, Dobson and other officials selected PowerCall Security, Atlanta, Ga., a subsidiary of Southern Company, to handle the installations.

Each DeKalb County school is installing an average of 16 cameras, although DeKalb Alternative is getting more than 28, to monitor hallways, computer rooms, gymnasiums and cafeterias. The cameras allow school officials to monitor activities from the principal's office. Also, a remote transmission system will send video images to the county's central school security office. Other security equipment will be geared to the needs of each school.

The DeKalb Alternative School's turn-key system includes state-of-the-art cameras, monitors, multiplexers and VCRs.

DeKalb's success with its CCTV system has prompted other metro Atlanta school systems to take a look at acquiring similar systems, according to Ralph Dobson, director of security for the DeKalb School System.

"We currently have systems installed in 28 schools," he says. "So far I've gotten nothing but good comments about the camera systems, so we're looking at them as great assets."

The equipment Dobson purchased - after a lengthy study and bid - includes a Gyyr TLC 2100-SHD time-lapse video recorder with a super high-density recording capacity, allowing 24-hour-a-day, real-time recording and seven-hour monitoring on the weekends.

The Samsung 1/3-inch, color digital CCD cameras have a resolution of 480 lines. Indoor cameras are encased in housing supplied by Videolarm Inc., Decatur, Ga. The RC200C model is designed with a black metal box and lock. Its low-profile, fire-rated and tamper-proof plastic housing replaces a 2x2-foot ceiling tile. It can be rotated 360 degrees to cover any part of an area.

The parking lot cameras are encased in Silent Witness Armor DomeV-27 housings. These aluminum units have side hinges for easy access.

Each camera is controlled through a Calibur MMX 165C multiplexer by Impac Technologies, Costa Mesa, Calif., which allows a security officer to switch from one area to another, using 16 cameras. Plans call for upgrading to a 32-camera multiplexer later in the year. The upgrade will allow for the remaining 12 cameras to record at the same time.

"We train school personnel on how to use the equipment, and PowerCall provides the maintenance and repair work," says commercial project coordinator Jim Neigh.

PowerCall has continued to add more components to the security system. Dobson's office seeks to develop an interactive system to allow security officials to monitor events in real time. "The officers will be able to see that someone is in the building," remarked Dobson. "We're recording and monitoring at the same time."

This security leap will be made possible by a phone line connection with the school's intranet system. This addition will soon be up and running, school officials say.

According to Dobson, the new security system is achieving one of his primary goals of cutting down significantly on the school's biggest problems - vandalism.

Another goal is to reduce thefts by those inside the school and unauthorized entrants. He believes the camera system is also having a significant impact in these areas.

"We've reduced the number of burglaries, but because of the kinds of materials they're stealing, the cost is still pretty high."

DeKalb is facing a common problem for other schools across the nation: To keep up with the high-tech revolution, they have added a host of computers, printers and other gear - all prime targets for thieves. One such theft easily equals several thefts of less valuable materials. Although the number of incidents has declined, the costs still seem to be rising, notes Dobson.

DeKalb Alternative School principal Eunice Hallford says the cameras have a calming effect on the students. "The students see the monitors when they come in the front door," she says. "It's a subtle means of control - supervision with a smile."

The presence of the cameras along with school officials' proactive approach to discipline have created a school environment in which incidents are rare, she says.

"We're not just a holding tank for these students," she says. "We have an active program for helping students deal with their anger." She adds that the school also has a highly trained staff skilled in dealing with behaviorally disturbed or disruptive students.

In fact, Hallford notes that she feels more secure at DeKalb Alternative than she would in a mainstream school. For example, the single entrance in and out of the building is constantly monitored by a security officer and the CCTV system.

From her office, from the assistant principal's office or from a security office near the front entrance, Hallford can easily monitor the cavernous former commercial building. Mounted on the wall above her desk is a Samsung 21-inch color monitor providing 450 lines of resolution. At the school's old location, all the cameras were black-and-white, so the addition of color has served to increase security as well.

"When you're trying to identify someone quickly, being able to see color of clothing is very important," Hallford says.

The DeKalb County school security department maintains a close relationship with the DeKalb County Police Department, which monitors the school's alarm system. "We work closely with them to cut down on false alarms," Dobson says.

As chief of security, Dobson carefully sought input from the principal of each school to find out their needs. Once the equipment was installed, he paid attention to how well it worked for them.

"What I'm hearing from the principals is that the idea that someone is there watching the the students all the time has greatly cut down on vandalism," he observes "The cameras have been in the schools for about six months now, and we're seeing a decrease in incidents, and I hope we'll continue to see a decrease."

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