Schools Are Spending Billions on Hi-Tech Defense for Mass Shootings
Reed Bauer was finishing lunch at his middle school in the Atlanta area last year when the alarm, warning of an emergency, began to sound through the halls. Reed, then in sixth grade, had heard the school’s “code red” alert as never before.
It was part of a new $5 million crisis management service that was purchased by the Cobb County School District in Marietta, Ga. District officials had promoted the system, called AlertPoint, as “state-of-the-art technology” that could help save students’ lives in the event of a school shooting.
That day, however, Alertpoint went haywire, sending false alarms to schools in one of the country’s largest districts, sparking the lockdown and scaring students.
“Everyone was really scared,” said Reed, now 13. Fearing for her life, she said, she turned off all the lights in her classroom and instructed her classmates to sit along a wall with a view of the windows. “One kid actually tried to call 911,” he said.
Schools have been struggling to prevent and handle mass shootings since 1999, when two gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Trying to prevent similar attacks has become a nerve-racking mission for thousands of school leaders in the United States.
Safety concerns are helping fuel a multi-billion dollar industry of school safety products. Some manufacturers sell gun-detection scanners and wireless panic buttons for school districts. Others offer high-resolution cameras and software that can recognize students’ faces, track their locations, and monitor their online activities – surveillance widely used by law enforcement in classrooms. equipment can be brought.
In 2021, schools and colleges in the United States spent an estimated $3.1 billion on security products and services, compared to $2.7 million in 2017, according to market-research company Omdia. Safety trade groups have lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding for school safety measures. The gun law passed by Congress last week includes an additional $300 million to strengthen school safety.
Safety and technology directors for half a dozen school districts interviewed said certain products were important. One pointed to the security camera system that had helped his district see and assess the severity of the fire at the school. Others mentioned distress-alert technology that school staff can use to call for help during an emergency.
District officials offered more varied opinions on sophisticated-sounding systems — such as high-tech threat detectors — that promise to enhance security through the use of artificial intelligence.
But according to a 2016 report on school safety technology by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there is little evidence to suggest that security technologies have prevented or reduced catastrophic school incidents such as mass shootings.
Read more on Artificial Intelligence
“There can be a tendency to grab the latest technology and make it appear that you’re doing something really protective and very innovative,” said Brian Casey, technology director for the Stevens Point Area Public School District in Wisconsin. “We really have to take a step back and look at it and say: What’s the benefit to us? And what’s the price?”
Civil liberties experts warn that the proliferation of surveillance technologies such as gun detectors may make some students feel less secure. They say the tools also do nothing to address the underlying causes of school shootings: the widespread availability of assault weapons and the national mental health crisis.
“Much of this technology serves as a distraction,” said Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice group in Texas.
Wesley Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Parish Schools, a district in Louisiana with about 4,200 students, said that creating a supportive school culture was more important for safety than safety technology. Still, some tools can give schools “an extra layer of protection,” he said.
His district recently began using video analysis from a start-up called ZeroEyes, which scans school camera feeds looking for guns. The company, founded by US military 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 to check any gun images before notifying the school that the system detects. The company says its human review process ensures school officials will not receive false gun alerts.
ZeroEyes service can cost up to $5,000 per month for a single high school with 200 cameras. Mr Vats, in whose district the service is used in 250 school cameras, said the cost was well worth it.
Several months ago, the superintendent said, ZeroEyes found a young man carrying a rifle near a high school track meet. Soon after, company reviewers identified the object as an Airsoft Gun, a toy plastic replica. This enabled district staff to intervene directly with the student without calling in law enforcement, Mr. Vats said.
“To me, it is already worth it, even if there are no real weapons,” said Mr. Watts.
ZeroEyes technology has limited uses. ZeroEyes chief executive Mike Lahife said the aim is to detect visible guns as they are being branded – not holsters or hidden under coats.
Other districts have run into problems with new safety equipment.
In 2019, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School, one of the largest US school districts with more than 140,000 students, introduced an emergency alert system. It comes from Centegix, an Atlanta-based company that promised that its wearable panic badges would provide all school employees with “a quick way to notify appropriate personnel and authorities” of emergencies or other incidents.
The district spent more than $1.1 million on this system. But it later sued Sentegix to recover the money after The Charlotte Observer investigated detailed defects in the badge service.
According to legal documents filed in the case, badges “repeatedly failed to notify personnel”, sent incorrect critical warning messages and caused “significant delays in critical safety information”, among other problems, according to legal documents filed in the case. The district settled with Centegix for $475,000.
Mary Ford, chief marketing officer for Sentegix, said Charlotte Schools was pilot testing the alert system and that the company addressed the issues that arose. The company has delivered more than 100,000 alerts, she said, and worked with nearly 200 school districts, retaining 99 percent of those customers, with Charlotte-Mecklenburg being the exception.
This spring, following an increase in the number of guns confiscated from students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools introduced a different security system: walk-through weapons scanners that cost as much as $5 million for 52 scanners in 21 high schools.
These scanners come from Evolve Technology, a Massachusetts-based start-up that said it used machine learning to train its system to recognize magnetic fields around guns and other hidden weapons. “No withholding required,” the company’s website says, “no empty pockets or bags to take out.”
But common student items regularly set off Evolve scanners, among them laptops, umbrellas, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and metal water bottles.
In a how-to video about the scanner posted to YouTube in April, Matthew Garcia, the dean of students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Butler High School, recommended that students remove those items from their bags and carry them. Mr. Garcia then showed students how to avoid triggering the system – by walking through an Evolve scanner in the school lobby while holding a laptop with his arms above his head.
Brian Schultz, chief operating officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the scanners were more accurate, and much faster, to use in large high schools than traditional metal detectors. He said requiring students to remove items from their bags was a “short-term inconvenience” to improve school safety.
“There’s never going to be a perfect solution.” Mr Schultz said, the district took a “layered” approach to security that included cameras, security officers and a growing number of school-based mental health workers.
Mike Ellenbogen, Evolve’s chief innovation officer, said the company is working with school districts to make scanning systems more efficient.
Cobb County was the first school district in Georgia to use AlertPoint, an emergency information system developed by a local start-up. District officials said AlertPoint’s wearable panic badges will help school staff immediately call for a lockdown or call for help in an emergency.
Then, in February 2021, the AlertPoint system sent out false alarms across the district, leading to a lockdown of all Cobb County schools. District officials had initially said that the alertpoint had deteriorated. A few weeks later, he announced that the hackers had intentionally set off false alerts.
At a school board meeting this month, district superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the system was working until the cyberattack.
But Heather Tolly-Bauer, Reed’s mother and co-founder of a local monitoring group that tracks school spending, said she blamed district leaders for implementing the unproven technology.
Cobb County School District did not respond to specific questions about its safety measures. In a statement, district spokesman Nan Kiel said, “To keep our students and staff safe, we keep operational details about our schools private.” (According to The Marietta Daily Journal, the school district is the subject of a grand jury investigation into some previous purchases, including millions of dollars spent on UV lights aimed at cleaning classrooms during the pandemic.)
This month, Cobb County Schools announced that they were installing new distress alert technology from Sentigix, the company whose alert badges messed up Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Another large school district, Palm Beach, Fla., also announced a deal with the company.