Schools Are Spending Billions on High-Tech Defense for Mass Shootings

schools are spending billions on high-tech defense for mass shootings
© Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Students at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C., using Evolv scanners.

Correction: June 26, 2022

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a student at an Atlanta middle school. He is Reid Bauer, not Baeur.

Reid Bauer was finishing lunch period last year at his middle school in the Atlanta area when an alarm began blaring through the halls, 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, 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.

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

“Everybody was just really scared,” said Reid, now 13. Fearing for his life, he said, he turned off all the lights in his classroom and instructed his classmates to crouch along one wall, out of sight of the windows. “One kid actually tried calling 911,” he said.

Schools have been struggling with how to hinder, and handle, mass shootings since 1999, when two gunmen armed with semiautomatic weapons killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Trying to avert similar attacks has become a nerve-racking mission for tens of thousands of school leaders in the United States.

Safety anxieties are helping to fuel a multibillion-dollar industry of school security products. Some manufacturers sell gun-detection scanners and wireless panic buttons for school districts. Others offer high-resolution cameras and software that can identify students’ faces, track their locations and monitor their online activities — bringing into classrooms the kind of surveillance tools 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 with $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 safety measures. The gun legislation that Congress passed last week includes an additional $300 million to bolster school security.

Security and technology directors at half a dozen school districts said in interviews that some products were vital. One pointed to security camera systems that had helped his district observe and gauge the severity of school fires. Others mentioned crisis-alert technology that the school staff may use to summon help during an emergency.

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

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

“There can be a tendency to grab the latest technology and make it appear that you are doing something really protective and very innovative,” said Brian Casey, the 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 are we getting out of this? And what’s the cost?”

Civil liberty experts warn that the spread of surveillance technologies like gun detectors may make some students feel less safe. They say the tools also 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.

“Much of this tech serves the function of a distraction,” said Chris Harris, the policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice group in Texas.

Wesley Watts, the 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 security technology. Even so, certain tools may give schools “an extra layer of security,” he said.

His district recently began using video analysis from a start-up called ZeroEyes that scans school camera feeds, looking for guns. The company, founded by U.S. 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 who check any gun images the system detects before notifying a school. The company says its human review process ensures 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 detected a young man carrying a rifle outside near a high school track meet. Soon after, the company’s reviewers identified the object as an Airsoft gun, a toy plastic replica. That enabled the district staff to intervene directly with the student without calling in law enforcement, Mr. Watts said.

“That, to me, makes it already worth having, even if there weren’t real weapons,” Mr. Watts said.

The ZeroEyes technology has limited uses. It is intended to detect visible guns as they are being brandished — not holstered or hidden under coats, said Mike Lahiff, the chief executive of ZeroEyes.

Other districts have run into problems with new safety tools.

In 2019, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the largest U.S. school districts at more than 140,000 students, introduced an emergency alert system. It came from Centegix, an Atlanta company that promised that 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 it later sued Centegix to recoup the funds after an investigation by The Charlotte Observer detailed defects in the badge service.

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

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

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

The scanners come from Evolv Technology, a Massachusetts start-up that said it had used machine learning to train its system to recognize magnetic fields around guns and other concealed weapons. “No stopping is required,” the company’s website says, “no emptying pockets or removing bags.”

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

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

Brian Schultz, the chief operations 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 the need for students to remove items from their bags was a “short-term inconvenience” to improve school safety.

“There is never going to be one perfect solution,” Mr. Schultz said, adding that the district took a “layered” approach to safety that included cameras, security officers and an increasing number of school-based mental health personnel.

Mike Ellenbogen, the chief innovation officer at Evolv, said the company was working with school districts to find ways to make the scanning system operate more smoothly.

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

Then, in February 2021, the AlertPoint system sent false alarms districtwide, leading to lockdowns at all Cobb County schools. District officials initially said AlertPoint had malfunctioned. A few weeks later, they announced that hackers had deliberately set off the false alerts.

At a school board meeting this month, Chris Ragsdale, the district’s superintendent, said the system had been working until the cyberattack.

But Heather Tolley-Bauer, Reid’s mother and the co-founder of a local watchdog group that monitors school spending, said she faulted district leaders for deploying unproven technology.

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

This month, Cobb County schools announced that they were installing new crisis alert technology from Centegix, the company whose alert badges had glitches in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Palm Beach, Fla., another large school district, also announced a deal with the company.

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