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JCPS considers adding AI weapons detection to schools

Liz Schlemmer

A majority of board members expressed support for bringing new gun-sensing tech into schools.

Facing public pressure to secure school buildings in the hope of preventing shootings, the Jefferson County Board of Education considered a proposal Tuesday to bring weapons detection technology to school buildings.

Under the $17 million proposal, Jefferson County Public Schools would use new artificial intelligence technology to detect whether anyone passing through school doors is carrying concealed weapons.

“I want to do this, I want to do it now. And I want to do it as quickly as possible,” District 3 board member James Craig said. “Our community has changed, and the proliferation of guns throughout our community is much more different in 2023, than it was in 2018 or 2019.”

Data from the Kentucky Department of Education shows weapons-related incidents have increased in the last five years, statewide and in Jefferson County Public Schools.

Last school year, JCPS reported 617 incidents in which students were disciplined for bringing a weapon of any kind — including handguns, knives, paintball guns, pellet guns or toy guns — to school. That same figure was 88 in the 2017-2018 school year.

JCPS Chief of Staff Katy Deferrari told the board the new technology, known as AI weapons detection, has advantages over metal detectors because it is quicker and less invasive.

The AI detectors are similar in shape and size to anti-theft scanners used in retail stores and libraries.

As a person walks through, live video footage is fed to a staff member. If the scanner detects a possible weapon, it alerts staff, and shows where on the person’s body it may be hidden.

Deferrari said the technology typically alerts staff of a possible weapon in 5-6% of cases. JCPS staff visited Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other districts in Kentucky and across the country to see the technology in action.

The scanner senses shapes, masses and compressed metal that could be a firearm, large knife or small explosive device. Sometimes it picks up other objects that turn out not to be dangerous.

District staff said the technology learns and becomes more accurate over time.

Unlike metal detectors, the AI scanners would allow students to walk through without having to remove outwear, shoes, belts or jewelry, or have their bags searched separately.

Defarrari said that leaves less room for profiling or bias by staff.

“We want the machine to detect what it’s supposed to detect and let people know where to look so we don’t have to be invasive or search things that don’t need to be searched,” she said.

Historically, the Jefferson County Board of Education has resisted bringing in armed police, metal detectors and other school “hardening” measures over concerns they create a prison-like environment that makes some students feel less safe, especially some Black and Brown students.

However, in February, the board voted 6-1 to direct district staff to explore adding metal detectors and other weapons detection technology.

Tuesday’s presentation received positive feedback from most board members.

“I want to vote for this as soon as I can,” District 7 board member Sarah Cole McIntosh said.

“I really like the artificial intelligence weapon detection systems,” District 6 Board member Corrie Shull said.

Shull, who brought the motion in February, said he recently went through an AI weapon detection system at the Kentucky Center for the Arts before an orchestra concert.

“It is no big deal. You could miss it if you were not paying attention to it,” he said. “And so I do think that this is the type of system that would go a long way in ensuring that we don't make our school buildings similar to our carceral state.”

District 2 board member Chris Kolb, who voted against exploring weapons detection options in February, remained skeptical of the nascent technology.

“It disturbs me a little bit that the board is thinking about spending $17 million on something that has little to no research,” Kolb said.

Kolb also noted that amid a staffing crisis, the plan would require hiring additional personnel, including more armed police officers.

Last year the board voted for a certain model of law enforcement, and not very long after we would be significantly reconfiguring that model that we spent three years developing….which is extremely problematic to me,” he said.

Kolb's sentiments were echoed by two members of the public who spoke on the proposal.

“Some are looking for a quick fix to our issues of safety. And the flavor of the month is sensor technology promoted by private corporations raking in the big bucks,” Carla Wallace told the board. Wallace is a member of Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, a local, left-leaning civil rights advocacy group.

Wallace said she worried the detectors would exacerbate discrimination against students of color and LGBTQ students, and “undermine the learning atmosphere for everyone.”

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio emphasized that the presentation was not an official recommendation from him.

“We have a finite number of dollars, and $17 million is a large number — there is no doubt about it,” he said. “That will be dollars that may not go to something else.”

According to staff, the $17 million would cover the cost of leasing the cost of the equipment and software for five years. JCPS would own the equipment at the end of the five year lease. The $17 million would not cover anticipated additional personnel costs.

Under a proposed timeline, JCPS would add weapons detection to half of high schools in the fall, and the other half of high schools in the spring of next year. Middle schools would get weapons detection in the fall of 2024.

Board members voted 5-2 to “proceed with implementing the proposal,” and to hold a formal vote on implementation on May 9. That meeting will include an hour for public comment ahead of the vote. Kolb and District 4 member Joe Marshall were the two ‘no’ votes.

Several members, including those who supported moving forward with the plan, also urged action from the broader community on gun control.

“We as a school district are not going to be able to address the issue of weapons in our schools until the community decides that they want to help support us by keeping weapons away from children in the first place,” McIntosh said.

The district will be trying out the new technology at Butler High School from May 8 to May 19. Officials say it will be an opportunity for staff, students and community members to learn how the screening process might work.

This story was updated to include more detail about the types of weapons found in JCPS schools last year.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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