In New York’s Port Washington Union Free School District, a community on the north shore of Long Island, security and privacy for students, faculty and staff coexist — thanks to security cameras with eyelids.
In December 2010, video cameras donated by New York-based SituCon Systems were installed in the main lobby at two of the district’s seven schools, said David Baylen, the district’s IT director. “We really haven’t had the kind of incidents [that called for video security] — this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to something,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive and use technology in a manner that enhances our current security measures in the buildings.”
The cameras are standard IP-based Panasonic video cameras equipped with proprietary “eyelids” for privacy. “Sometimes you put security cameras in a plastic dome to protect them from vandalism,” Baylen said, “and in this case, there’s a plastic dome, but on the inside of it, there’s an eyelid that opens up to expose the camera.”
When the camera is in privacy mode, the eyelid is closed. But if a staff member with a key fob presses the button to open the camera’s eyelid, Baylen said, the local police station is alerted and officers can see the video feed.
At the same time, district staff members receive a text message or e-mail alerting them that there is an incident. “The notion is kind of like a video 911,” said Baylen. “It is really meant to provide video security on demand when you feel you need it. In this case, since we’re partnering with the local police, there isn’t a need for them to watch constantly. In the event that there’s a situation that requires emergency response, they immediately have video access to what is going on.”
Officers in patrol cars have the security software on their laptops, allowing them to connect wirelessly and monitor the cameras. “If there was an incident and they need to respond, they can actually see what’s going on before they enter the building,” Baylen said. When the alert shows up in the local 911 call center, a screen loads with information about the person who activated the camera, along with his or her photograph and a call-back number, explained Baylen.
Besides preserving privacy on campus, the eyelid cameras help police focus on real emergencies. Baylen noted that if school cameras are consistently on, police officers don’t necessarily know if they are looking at a school with kids playing or a problem situation. “There’s a fatigue factor if you have cameras on all the time,” he said. “When there is an emergency, you have the ability to invite emergency responders into the environment electronically.”
Should a false alarm occur, Baylen said the district would rather have the police respond — and the district can always call officers back and say, “‘No, never mind.’ And they feel the same way; they want to be there to provide assistance if needed.”
Baylen said he hopes to expand the installation to two of the school district’s three remaining elementary schools. “We are looking for community-based funding sources since this is not something we’ve budgeted for,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll be very cooperative in helping us with this — the manufacturer and our community really step up to the plate and help with special projects.”
There also is potential in the classroom, Baylen said, where the cameras could be used for distance learning in addition to providing security. “We are far from that, but there’s a lot of potential here.”
Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.