Schools spend billions on high-tech defense for mass shooting

Reid Bauer ended the lunch period last year at his middle school in the Atlanta area when an alarm began to rumble through the hallways and warned of an emergency. Reid, then in sixth grade, had never heard the school’s “red code” warning before.

It was part of a new $ 5 million crisis management service that Cobb County School District in Marietta, Ga. Had purchased. 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 into play and sent false alerts to schools across one of the country’s largest districts, causing closures and intimidating students.

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

Schools have struggled with how to prevent, and deal with, mass shooting 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 ward off similar attacks has become a nerve-wracking task for tens of thousands of school leaders in the United States.

Security concerns are helping to provide energy to an industry with billions of dollars in school security products. Some manufacturers sell weapon detection scanners and wireless panic buttons for school districts. Others offer high-resolution cameras and software that can identify students’ faces, track their positions and monitor their online activities – and bring into the classroom the kind of surveillance tools that are widely used by law enforcement.

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 Omdia, a market research company. Security trade groups have lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding for school security measures. The gun laws passed by Congress last week include an additional $ 300 million to strengthen school security.

Safety and technology directors at half a dozen school districts said in interviews that some products were important. One pointed to security camera systems that had helped his district observe and measure the severity of school fires. Others mentioned crisis alert technology that school staff can use to call for help during an emergency.

District officials gave more varied opinions about the sophisticated systems – such as high-tech threat detectors – that promise to increase security through the use of artificial intelligence.

But there is little hard evidence to suggest that security technologies have prevented or mitigated catastrophic school incidents such as mass shootings, according to a 2016 report on school security technology by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

“There may be a tendency to embrace the latest technology and make it look like you’re doing something really protective and very innovative,” said Brian Casey, technology director at Stevens Point Area Public School District in Wisconsin. “We really have to take a step back and look at it and say: What benefit do we get out of this? And what does it cost? “

Civil liberties experts warn that the proliferation of surveillance technologies such as weapons detectors may make some students feel less secure. They also say that the tools do nothing to address what many consider to be the underlying causes of school shootings: the widespread availability of assault weapons and a national mental health crisis.

“A lot of this technology serves the function 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 creating a supportive school culture was more important to safety than safety technology. Still, certain tools can give schools “an extra layer of security,” he said.

His district recently began using video analytics from a startup called ZeroEyes, which scans school camera feeds and searches for weapons. The company, founded by US military veterans, said they used so-called machine learning to train their system to recognize around 300 types of assault rifles and other firearms.

ZeroEyes also employs former military and law enforcement personnel who check any weapon images the system detects before notifying a school. The company says that the human review process ensures that school officials will not 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 across 250 school cameras, said the cost was worth it.

Several months ago, the superintendent said, ZeroEyes discovered a young man carrying a rifle outside near a high school runway. Shortly afterwards, the company’s reviewers identified the object as an Airsoft pistol, a plastic toy replica. This made it possible for district employees to intervene directly with the student without calling for law enforcement, Mr. Watts said.

“That, to me, already makes it worth having, even if there were no real weapons,” Mr. Watts said.

ZeroEyes technology has limited use. It is intended to detect visible weapons as they swing – not in holsters or hidden under coats, said Mike Lahiff, CEO of ZeroEyes.

Other districts have had problems with new security tools.

In 2019, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the largest U.S. school districts with more than 140,000 students, introduced an emergency alert system. It came from Centegix, an Atlanta company that promised that its portable panic tags would give all school staff “an immediate way to alert appropriate personnel and authorities” about emergencies or other incidents.

The district spent more than $ 1.1 million on the system. However, it later sued Centegix to recover the money after an investigation by The Charlotte Observer detailed shortcomings in the branding service.

Among other issues, the brands “repeatedly failed” to alert personnel, sent incorrect critical alert messages and caused “significant delays in critical safety information,” according to legal documents filed in the case. The district settled with Centegix for $ 475,000.

Mary Ford, marketing manager for Centegix, said that Charlotte schools had piloted the alert system and that the company addressed issues that arose. The company has delivered more than 100,000 alerts, she added, working in nearly 200 school districts, retaining 99 percent of those customers, with the exception of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

This spring, following an increase in the number of weapons confiscated from students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools introduced another security system: $ 5 million throughput scanners for 52 scanners at 21 high schools.

The scanners come from Evolv Technology, a startup in Massachusetts that said it had used machine learning to train its system to detect magnetic fields around weapons and other hidden weapons. “No stopping is necessary,” says the company’s website, “no emptying pockets or removing bags.”

But ordinary student items have routinely started the Evolv scanners, among them laptops, umbrellas, ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and metal water bottles.

In an instructional video about the scanners posted on YouTube in April, Matthew Garcia, student dean of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Butler High School, advised students to remove these items from their bags and carry them. Then Mr. Garcia showed the students how to avoid triggering the system – by going through an Evolv scanner in the school lobby with a laptop with his arms outstretched.

Brian Schultz, operations manager 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 students’ need to remove items from their bags was a “short-term disadvantage” to improve school safety.

“It’s never going to be a perfect solution.” Mr. Schultz said, adding that the district took a “layered” approach to safety that included cameras, security officers and a growing number of school-based mental health professionals.

Mike Ellenbogen, head of innovation at Evolv, said that the company collaborated with school districts to find ways to make the scanning system work more smoothly.

Cobb County was the first school district in Georgia to use AlertPoint, an emergency alert system developed by a local startup. District officials said AlertPoint’s portable panic marks would help school staff quickly call for a lockout or call for help in an emergency.

Then, in February 2021, the AlertPoint system sent false alarms across the district, leading to blockades at all Cobb County schools. District officials first said that AlertPoint was wrong. A few weeks later, they announced that hackers had deliberately triggered the false alerts.

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

But Heather Tolley-Bauer, Reid’s mother and co-founder of a local watchdog group that monitors school expenses, said she blamed district leaders for using untested technology.

The Cobb County School District did not respond to specific questions about the security measures. In a statement, Nan Kiel, a spokeswoman for the district, said, “To keep our students and staff safe, we keep operational details of our schools private.” (The school district is the subject of a grand jury investigation of certain previous purchases, including millions of dollars spent on UV light intended to clean classrooms during the pandemic, according to The Marietta Daily Journal.)

This month, schools in Cobb County announced that they are installing new crisis alert technology from Centegix, the company whose warning signs were faulty in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Palm Beach, Florida, another large school district, also announced an agreement with the company.

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