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City system has 24-hour surveillance, 25 on patrol

CHALLEN STEPHENS/Huntsville Times | November 9 2005

Security officials reassure teachers:'We are watching'

With the click of a mouse, the technician toggles between the empty gymnasium inside the new Huntsville High and the busy front hallway at Jones Valley Elementary.

Every day of the year, 350 cameras scan the campuses of Huntsville City Schools. There are 2,000 motion detectors and alarm sensors spread through more than 45 schools. There are 115 controlled-access doors.

All those devices relay information to a small, yellow-block building off Bob Wallace Avenue. Here, during the school day and, especially, after hours, employees continuously monitor who enters and who leaves each city school.

"The control room never shuts down," said Al Langford, who supervises 25 private security officers who patrol city campuses night and day. There are also 10 security operators and two technicians who staff the control room.

With the deadly assault of a teacher in Moulton last month, Langford said some city teachers have called with concerns. He tells them about the 24-hour surveillance. He also says: "It's like anything else - just be aware of your surroundings."

First-grade teacher Judy Jester was working after hours on Oct. 26 at Hatton Elementary School when she was attacked by an eighth-grader. The 15-year-old student has been charged with her murder.

Monday afternoon, a principal at Fayetteville Intermediate School in Tennessee was beaten by two masked men. He was working in his office after school hours. Tuesday, a student shot and killed an assistant principal and seriously wounded two other administrators at Campbell County High School about 30 miles northwest of Knoxville.

Last week, Langford outlined the procedure that keeps an eye on city teachers working late.

First, Huntsville teachers must get approval to work after hours. They need an electronic card to get into the building. They are supposed to contact the control room when they enter and when they leave - this applies on weekends, holidays and evenings when no one is expected to be in the building. Custodians are asked to do the same.

Then, if a motion detector goes off and the corresponding video pops up on the monitor in the control room, the security team will immediately call Huntsville police.

Or, if a teacher working after hours hears a noise, someone on the roof, maybe a stranger lingering just outside, the teacher can call the control room 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. From there, a security operator can check the cameras, dispatch school security officers or call police.

"They feel comfortable knowing we are watching over them," said Kim Hudson, who supervises the operations portion of school security.

During school hours, 18 uniformed police officers also patrol city high schools and middle schools.

In addition, Huntsville schools benefit from a surveillance system that is unusually intense for Alabama, said Travis Tow, a technician who monitors the system from the control room. "I would consider ours to be leading edge," said Tow, who was reluctant to go into detail about the workings of the system because burglars and vandals might learn too much.

Unlike Huntsville schools, many systems, particularly rural systems, do not have 24-hour surveillance nor a security control room staffed around the clock. Maybe that's because, despite the recent attacks, most break-ins remain minor affairs.

"Typically, the people who get into our buildings are little kids," said Superintendent Ann Roy Moore.

When children are found after hours, lingering by a water fountain or riding their bikes in the gym, security officers will contact their parents, Langford said. But if they are stealing or vandalizing the building, the children are taken to the Neaves Center, a juvenile detention facility.

For adult intruders, the school system automatically calls police. Security officers say the city once averaged a couple of burglaries a week. But that was before 1986, before the school board chose to install cameras and alarms on each campus.

Vandals "knew before when we didn't have one," Tow said. Now, security employees estimate they see a burglary once every couple of months.

Despite the system, Langford emphasized a bit of common sense helps teachers who work late. Stay aware of who is in the building, he said, and be prepared to call security with any concerns. He later advised against working alone.

"It's a good idea for (teachers) to use the buddy system," he said.

Security officers also agreed that teachers can help make schools safer by remembering to lock their classroom doors before leaving for the day and always closing the main door behind them when coming or going after school hours.

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