Schoolhouse Guardians

Physical Security

Photo Courtesy of Village Christian School​​

Schoolhouse Guardians
 

​Village Christian School, home to 1,100 students in grades K-12, is set in California’s Sun Valley in a quiet, residential neighborhood. “We’re off the beaten path,” says Mike Custer, director of facilities at Village Christian. 

“That’s kind of nice….but that means there’s not much observation of the campus by the public either.”

With its large student body and more than 100 faculty members, the school’s top concern is providing a safe and secure learning environment. “The threat has always been trespassers, vandalism, and theft,” Custer says, noting that custodial staff goes home at about 11 p.m. at the latest, and staff shows up at about 6 a.m. in the mornings. “The challenge for us has always been, how do you protect the campus in a cost-effective way at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m.—at the times when there is literally no one on campus?” 

These concerns are also reputational, because local residents are worried about any threats that the school may attract. “We operate under a conditional use permit which limits the use of our facilities to accommodate the neighbors,” he says. 

The school has physical security measures, including a six-foot chain link fence to keep out trespassers, but Custer notes that they are easily ignored by anyone wishing to enter the campus. “You could go under or over the gates, or you could even walk in through the foothills if you knew the path to take,” he says. “It’s not much of a deterrent for someone who wants to come on campus.” 

During the day, certain faculty are trained on security duties and act as campus supervisors, but Custer says that is only a minor component of their normal job function. 

While the school had cameras in place on the perimeter of campus, that footage only proved valuable after an incident. “I would get up in the morning and check the cameras, but unless you happen to see something at the time it’s happening, it’s not a very good system,” he explains. 

Often, the trespassing issues were petty incidents like painting graffiti and using the campus to film amateur movies, Custer says. “We had skateboarders and bicyclists that would come in and film movies and slide down ramps and things. They were causing damage, but they knew where our cameras were,” he explains. “So if they would go by them, they would just kind of cover their faces—they knew nobody was watching so it didn’t matter.” 

But more serious incidents have occurred, including a theft in which valuable bus batteries were stolen. “Somebody actually came in the back of campus, spent about an hour going through all of the buses, disconnecting all of the batteries….they were career criminals,” Custer says. “We lost a couple thousand dollars in bus batteries.” 

The school considered hiring an after-hours security guard to patrol the 16 buildings spread across its campus, but Custer explains that having one pair of eyes for the entire premises didn’t seem to be enough. 

In late 2015, a parent at the school approached him about Elite Interactive, a remote security monitoring service. After presenting the product to the school board, the institution adopted the service and rolled it out in December. “Elite came in and looked at our campus, and added a few cameras to increase coverage, because we had several blind spots,” Custer says, noting that the company also recommended lighting increases to make dark spots more visible. 

At a set time each night, human operators at one of Elite Interactive’s command center locations begin monitoring the 21 cameras on Village Christian’s campus. Motion detection alerts the operators to a human crossing a certain geofence that is predetermined. Elite’s video software also allows the system to differentiate between a human and a deer or coyote, for example.

Should someone enter the campus, Elite Interactive officers will talk over speakers strategically placed around the school’s buildings, warning intruders that they are trespassing. 

If the unwanted visitors do not respond to the second or third voice warning, depending on the situation, Elite contacts law enforcement. Police have access to the campus through a lockbox, so no one from the school is required to respond after hours. Village Christian can export any footage and deliver it to law enforcement should the need arise. 

One value of having human operators monitoring the campus is the fact that they can use discretion, Custer says, not always involving law enforcement if it doesn’t seem warranted. 

“One time we had a transient jump the fence, and Elite tried to voice him down, but the guy had earbuds on,” he notes. “He was going around to the trashcans getting aluminum cans.” Elite determined the guy was likely harmless, and he eventually left the campus. In the daily email report it sends to the school of any activity that occurred overnight, Elite showed photos of the man and explained what happened. 

“In the morning [the trespasser] came back, because he had dropped his cell phone when he leaped over the fence,” Custer says. “I was able to say to him, ‘I know you were here last night. I’m sorry for your plight, but you can’t be on campus.’” He notes the man was compliant, and said he would take the school off his aluminum can collection route.

The only challenge to the rollout, Custer adds, was getting staff to respect normal operating hours at the school, including teachers who preferred to work late at night, or staff members who left something behind during the day. “I don’t want a single individual alone on campus at 2 a.m. for all kinds of reasons; for their personal safety, or if they get injured,” Custer says. “We always staff with at least two people when we have to have people here.” 

Since word has spread around the community that Village Christian has a remote security monitoring service, “everything has dropped to zero, as far as vagrants or transients or people coming onto the facility in the early morning hours,” Custer says. 

The remote monitoring service helps the school uphold its values of being a welcoming environment while remaining secure, Custer adds. “We do want to be a light to the world, but we have responsibilities to the students and parents,” he says. “I sleep better at night knowing I’m not going to pull onto campus and find it in disarray.”

For more information: John Valdez, jvaldez@eliteisi.com, www.eliteisi.com, 877/435.4832 ​