Schools spend billions on high-tech defense for mass shootings

Reid Baeur was finishing lunch period last year at his Atlanta-area college when an alarm began sounding in the hallways, warning of an emergency. Reid, then in sixth grade, had never heard the school’s “code red” alert before.

It was part of a new $5 million crisis management service that the Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia had purchased. District officials had promoted the system, called AlertPoint, as “advanced technology” that could help save students’ lives in the event of a school shooting.

That day, however, AlertPoint went haywire, sending false alarms in schools in one of the nation’s largest districts, causing lockdowns and scaring students.

“Everyone was really scared,” said Reid, now 13. Fearing for his life, he said, he turned off all the lights in his classroom and asked his classmates to crouch along a wall, out of sight of the windows. “A child actually tried to call 911,” he said.

Schools have struggled to prevent and deal with mass shootings since 1999, when two gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Trying to avoid similar attacks has become a nervous ordeal. mission for tens of thousands of school leaders in the United States.

Safety concerns help fuel a multi-billion dollar industry of school safety products. Some manufacturers sell gun detection scanners and wireless panic buttons for school districts. Others are offering high-resolution cameras and software that can identify students’ faces, track their location, and monitor their online activities, bringing the kind of surveillance tools widely used by forces into classrooms. of the order.

In 2021, schools and colleges in the United States spent about $3.1 billion on security products and services, up from $2.7 million in 2017, according to Omdia, a market research firm. Commercial security groups have lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding for school security measures. Gun legislation that Congress passed last week includes an additional $300 million to make schools safer.

Security and technology directors from half a dozen school districts said in interviews that certain products were life-saving. One pointed to security camera systems that had helped his district observe and assess the severity of school fires. Others mentioned crisis alert technology that school staff can use to call for help in an emergency.

District officials offered more varied opinions on sophisticated systems — like high-tech threat detectors — that promise to boost security through the use of artificial intelligence.

But there’s little hard evidence to suggest security technologies have prevented or mitigated catastrophic school events like mass shootings, according to a 2016 report on school security technologies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

“There can be a tendency to grab the latest technology and feel like you’re doing something really protective and very innovative,” said Brian Casey, chief technology officer for the Stevens Point Area Public School District in the Wisconsin. “We really have to step back and look at this and say, what benefit do we get from this? And what is the cost? »

Civil liberty experts warn that the spread of surveillance technologies such as gun detectors may make some students less safe. They say the tools also do nothing to address what many see as the underlying causes of school shootings: the widespread availability of assault weapons and a national mental health crisis.

“A lot of this technology serves as a distraction,” said Chris Harris, policy director of the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice group in Texas.

Wesley Watts, superintendent of parochial schools in West Baton Rouge, a Louisiana district with about 4,200 students, said creating a supportive school culture was more important to safety than safety technology. Even so, some tools can give schools “an extra layer of security,” he said.

Her district recently started using video analytics from a startup called ZeroEyes that scans school camera feeds for firearms. The company, founded by US Army veterans, said it used so-called machine learning to train its system to recognize about 300 types of assault rifles and other firearms.

ZeroEyes also employs former military and law enforcement personnel who verify all gun images detected by the system before notifying a school. The company says its humane review process ensures school officials won’t receive false gun alerts.

The ZeroEyes service can cost $5,000 per month for a single high school with 200 cameras. Mr. Watts, whose district uses the service on 250 school cameras, said the cost was worth it.

Several months ago, the superintendent said, ZeroEyes detected a young man carrying a rifle outside near a high school track meet. Shortly after, company examiners identified the object as an Airsoft gun, a plastic replica of a toy. This allowed district staff to intervene directly with the student without involving law enforcement, Watts said.

“That, to me, is already worth it, even if there were no real guns,” Mr Watts said.

ZeroEyes technology has limited uses. It’s meant to detect visible firearms as they’re wielded — not holstered or hidden under coats, said ZeroEyes chief executive Mike Lahiff.

Other districts have encountered problems with the new security tools.

In 2019, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of America’s largest school districts with over 140,000 students, introduced an emergency alert system. It came from Centegix, an Atlanta company that promised its wearable panic badges would provide all school employees with “an instant way to notify appropriate personnel and authorities” of emergencies or other incidents. .

The district spent more than $1.1 million on the system. But he later sued Centegix to recover the funds after an investigation by The Charlotte Observer detailed flaws in the badge service.

Among other issues, the badges “repeatedly failed” to notify staff, sent incorrect critical alert messages, and caused “significant delays of critical security information,” according to legal documents filed in the affair. The district settled with Centegix for $475,000.

Mary Ford, director of marketing for Centegix, said Charlotte schools tested the alert system and the company fixed any issues. The company has issued more than 100,000 alerts, she added, and has worked with nearly 200 school districts, retaining 99% of those customers, excluding Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

This spring, after an uptick in the number of guns confiscated from students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools introduced a different security system: walk-in gun scanners that cost $5 million for 52 scanners in 21 high schools.

The scanners are from Evolv Technology, a Massachusetts startup that said it used machine learning to train its system to recognize magnetic fields around firearms and other concealed weapons. “No stopping is necessary,” the company’s website states, “no emptying pockets or removing bags.”

But common student objects regularly set off Evolv scanners, including laptops, umbrellas, three-ring binders, spiral notebooks and metal water bottles.

In an explainer video about the scanners posted on YouTube in April, Matthew Garcia, dean of students at Butler High School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, recommended that students remove such items from their bags and carry them around. Next, Mr. Garcia showed students how to avoid triggering the system – by walking through an Evolv scanner in the school hall holding a laptop with his arms stretched above his head.

Brian Schultz, director of operations for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the scanners were more accurate and much faster to use in larger high schools than traditional metal detectors. He said the need for students to remove items from their bags was a “short-term inconvenience” to improving school safety.

“There will never be a perfect solution.” Mr. Schultz said, adding that the district took a “layered” approach to security that included cameras, security guards and a growing number of school mental health personnel.

Mike Ellenbogen, chief innovation officer at Evolv, said the company is working with school districts to find ways to make the scanning system smoother.

Cobb County was the first school district in Georgia to use AlertPoint, an emergency notification system developed by a local startup. District officials said AlertPoint’s wearable panic badges would help school employees quickly request a lockdown or seek help in an emergency.

Then, in February 2021, the AlertPoint system sent false alarms throughout the district, resulting in closures at all schools in Cobb County. District officials initially said AlertPoint malfunctioned. A few weeks later, they announced that hackers had deliberately triggered false alerts.

At a school board meeting this month, Chris Ragsdale, the district superintendent, said the system was working until the cyberattack.

But Heather Tolley-Baeur, Reid’s mother and co-founder of a local watchdog group that monitors school spending, said she blamed district leaders for rolling out unproven technology.

The Cobb County School District did not respond to specific questions about its safety measures. In a statement, Nan Kiel, a spokeswoman for the district, said, “To ensure the safety of our students and staff, we are keeping operational details of our schools private.” (The school district is under grand jury investigation into some past purchases, including millions of dollars spent on UV lights meant to sanitize classrooms during the pandemic, according to The Marietta Daily Journal.)

This month, Cobb County Schools announced it was installing new crisis alert technology from Centegix, the company whose alert badges had issues in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Palm Beach, Fla., another major school district, also announced a deal with the company.

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