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Billions Are Being Spent by Schools on High-tech Defense Against Mass Shootings

Last year, while Reid Bauer was wrapping up lunch at his middle school in the Atlanta region, an emergency alert started to blare through the hallways. Reid, who was in the sixth grade at the time, had never heard of the “code red” warning before.

The Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia, had just invested $5 million in a brand-new crisis management agency. The AlertPoint system was marketed by district officials as “state-of-the-art technology” that might protect pupils in the event of a school shooting.

On that particular day, however, AlertPoint malfunctioned, sending erroneous alerts to schools throughout one of the biggest districts in the country, prompting lockdowns and terrifying pupils.

Reid, now 13 years old, stated, “Everyone was just incredibly afraid.” He said that out of fear for his life, he turned out all the lights in his classroom and told his pupils to huddle behind one wall, away from the windows. One young person “really tried dialing 911,” he claimed.

Since 1999, when two gunmen with semi-automatic rifles killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, schools have struggled with how to prevent and handle mass shootings. Tens of thousands of school administrators in the United States are now on a nerve-wracking mission to try to prevent similar assaults.

Schools are spending billions on high-tech security. But are students any  safer?

School security systems are a multimillion-dollar business that is being driven by safety concerns. For school districts, several producers provide wireless panic buttons and scanners that detect guns. Others provide high-resolution cameras and software that can recognize students’ faces, locate them, and keep an eye on their internet activity—bringing the type of police enforcement-grade surveillance capabilities into the classroom.

According to market research firm Media, schools and universities in the United States will spend an anticipated $3.1 billion on security-related goods and services in 2021, up from $2.7 million in 2017. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds for school safety measures have been sought after by security trade groups. An additional $300 million will be provided to improve school security as part of the gun legislation that Congress enacted last week.

Some goods, according to conversations with security and technology directors from six school systems, are essential. One person mentioned how his district’s use of security cameras had enabled them to monitor and assess the severity of school fires. Others discussed crisis-alert technology, which might be used by school workers to contact emergency services.

The district authorities’ thoughts on the high-tech threat detectors and other sophisticated-sounding technologies that employ artificial intelligence to boost security were more diverse.

However, a 2016 investigation on school safety technology by experts at Johns Hopkins University found no empirical evidence to support the idea that safety devices had stopped or lessened catastrophic school occurrences like mass shootings.

According to Brian Casey, the technology director at the Stevens Point Area Public School District in Wisconsin, “there can be a propensity to grab the latest technology and make it look that you are doing something extremely protective and very creative.” “We really need to stand back, analyze the situation, and ask ourselves what benefits we are getting from it. And how much does it cost?

Experts on civil liberties caution that the proliferation of monitoring tools like gun detectors might make some students feel less secure. They claim that the tools are also ineffective in addressing what many people believe to be the primary factors contributing to school shootings: the easy access to assault weapons and the current state of the nation’s mental health.

Chris Harris, the policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, a nonprofit working for racial justice in Texas, stated that much of this technology works as a diversion.

A supportive school climate should be prioritized above security technology, according to Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish Schools in Louisiana, which serves around 4,200 kids. However, he said that such programs can add “an extra layer of security” to schools.

His district has lately started employing video analysis software from the ZeroEyes firm to search school camera feeds for firearms. The business, which was started by veterans of the U.S. military, claimed to have trained its system to detect around 300 different types of assault rifles and other weapons using so-called machine learning.

Additionally, ZeroEyes uses former law enforcement and military people who verify any photographs of guns it finds before alerting a school. According to the corporation, its human screening procedure guarantees that school administrators won’t get phony notifications about guns.

For a single high school with 200 cameras, the ZeroEyes service may cost $5,000 per month. According to Watts, whose district employs the program on 250 school cameras, the expense was justified.

ZeroEyes discovered a young guy with a rifle outside close to a high school track meets a few months back, according to the superintendent. The item was quickly identified by the company’s reviews as an Airsoft gun, a plastic toy imitation. According to Watts, this made it possible for district officials to deal with the pupil on their own without involving the police.

Schools Are Spending Billions on Safety Measures to Stop Mass Shootings.  It's Not Clear They Work

Even if there weren’t actual weapons, Watts reasoned, “That makes it already worth possessing.”

Few applications exist for the ZeroEyes technology. According to Mike Lahiff, CEO of ZeroEyes, it is meant to identify openly displayed firearms rather than those holstered or concealed behind clothing.

With new safety equipment, several districts have had issues.

With more than 140,000 pupils, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, one of the biggest school systems in the United States, launched an emergency warning system in 2019. It came from a business called Centegix, based in Atlanta, which claimed that their wearable panic badges would give all school staff “an instant mechanism to inform appropriate individuals and authorities” of crises or other occurrences.

The system cost the district more than $1.1 million. But after The Charlotte Observer’s research exposed flaws in the badge service, it later filed a lawsuit against Centegix to recover the money.

According to legal filings submitted in the complaint, among other issues, the badges “repeatedly failed” to warn people, delivered inaccurate vital alert messages, and caused “substantial delays of essential safety information.” With Centegix, the district reached a $475k settlement.

Charlotte schools had been using the alarm system in a trial program, according to Centegix Chief Marketing Officer Mary Ford, and the business dealt with any problems that sprang up. She stated that the organization has worked with almost 200 school districts and has sent more than 100,000 notifications, keeping 99 percent of those clients except Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Following an increase in student gun confiscations, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools this spring implemented a new security measure: walk-through weapon scanners, which cost $5 million for 52 scanners at 21 high schools.

The scanners are made by Evolv Technology, a Massachusetts-based start-up that claimed to have trained its technology to detect magnetic fields surrounding firearms and other hidden weapons using machine learning. According to the company’s website, “no stopping is necessary,” and “no emptying pockets or removing bags.”

However, popular student objects like laptops, umbrellas, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and metal water bottles frequently set off the Evolv scanners.

Matthew Garcia, Butler High School’s student dean, suggested that students take certain items out of their backpacks and carry them in a how-to video on the scanners that was uploaded to YouTube in April. As he passed through an Evolv scanner in the school foyer with a laptop and his arms extended over his head, Garcia then demonstrated to the kids how to avoid setting off the device.

The scanners are faster and more accurate to employ in major high schools than conventional metal detectors, according to Brian Schultz, chief operating officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He said that to increase school safety, pupils would have to take stuff out of their backpacks, calling this a “short-term nuisance.”

There will never be a single ideal answer, according to Schultz, who also noted that the district adopted a “layered” strategy for school safety that includes cameras, security guards, and a growing number of school-based mental health professionals.

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Evolv’s chief innovation officer, Mike Ellenbogen, said the business was collaborating with school districts to identify methods to improve the efficiency of the scanning system.

A local firm created AlertPoint, an emergency notification system, and Cobb County was the first school district in Georgia to employ it. According to district officials, AlertPoint’s wearable panic bracelets will enable school staff to instantly request a lockdown or ask for assistance in an emergency.

Then, in February 2021, false alerts were sent out across the whole district via the AlertPoint system, resulting in lockdowns at all Cobb County schools. Initially, according to district authorities, AlertPoint was broken. A few weeks later, they declared that the false alarms had been purposefully triggered by hackers.

Chris Ragsdale, the district’s superintendent, stated the system was functional before the incident at a school board meeting this month.

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Reid’s mother Heather Tolley-Bauer, who is also a co-founder of a community watchdog organization that tracks school expenditures, criticized the district administrators for using untested technology.

When questioned specifically about its security procedures, the Cobb County School District remained silent. A district spokesman, Nan Kiel, stated in a statement that “we keep operational information regarding our schools private to keep our children and employees safe.” According to The Marietta Daily Journal, a grand jury is looking into the school district’s prior expenditures, which include millions of dollars spent on UV lamps used to clean classrooms during the epidemic.

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This month, Cobb County schools made the announcement that they will be implementing a new crisis alert system from Centegix, the organization whose alert badges in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools experienced technical difficulties. Another sizable school district in Florida, Palm Beach, also revealed a partnership with the firm.

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