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JCPS is poised to spend $17 million on AI weapons detection. Is it worth it?

Two security sensors flank the entrance to a modern building.
Jess Clark
Evolv's AI weapons detectors are already in non-school settings in Louisville, including the Kentucky Center for the Arts. But some security experts say the technology isn't suited for schools.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is voting on whether to spend big on a pricey new technology. But some security experts are raising red flags about the company that makes the tech.

Last week, school district staff told the Jefferson County Board of Education about a new kind of technology that seemed almost too good to be true: artificial intelligence weapons detection. Evolv, the company that makes it, says its system can check for guns and other weapons, without requiring students to go through daily bag checks and pat downs.

The school board is in a tough spot. Members are facing public pressure to keep guns out of schools, but many are worried about how things like metal detectors and searches will make students feel, especially students of color.

Jefferson County Public Schools staff presented AI weapons detection as a possible solution for a district that is worried about racial bias and profiling in any school security efforts.

“This type of technology really helps avoid about as much of that as you’re going to be able to avoid in using any kind of detection system,” JCPS Chief of Staff Katy DeFerrari told the board last Tuesday.

But with a $17 million price tag, the new technology is much more expensive than traditional metal detectors, and not everyone thinks it’s living up to its promise.

AI weapons detection technology

Originally marketed to sports arenas and concert venues, Evolv says its AI-trained sensors detect concealed weapons. As a person passes by the scanner, live video is sent to a security guard. If weapons are detected, a box appears over the area where the object is hidden, and security is alerted.

Evolv is at least five times more expensive than traditional metal detectors, according to experts. JCPS estimates it will cost $17 million dollars to outfit the district for five years. That figure does not include the additional staffing the system will require.

But the advantage, DeFerrari told the board, is that AI weapons detection is faster than traditional metal detection and requires fewer secondary screenings. The company says its tech is more targeted to find metal that’s specifically in weapons, and it shows exactly where the potential weapon is located.

“I don't have to have you empty your pockets, I don't need to trouble your person, you don’t have to take your shoes off,” DeFerrari told the board.

Evolv is growing in a rapidly expanding school security industry. The company is in 400 schools across the U.S. Some of those districts have seen bumpy rollouts. But officials in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in North Carolina, told LPM News that after installing the tech, the number of guns they found dropped from 30 in 2021-2022 to three in 2022-2023.

That statistic was enough to sway District 5 board member Linda Duncan, who heard about the drop in weapons in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools from JCPS staff at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“All I've ever asked is that we do something to reduce the odds that these things are going to be in our buildings — whatever we can do to reduce the odds, and I think that's a pretty impressive reduction,” Duncan said before giving tentative approval to purchasing the technology.

School board members sit around their dais and watch staff present a PowerPoint.
Jess Clark
JCPS staff presented AI weapons detection as a possible solution to security concerns at a board meeting on April 25, 2023.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg was among the districts JCPS staff visited to see the Evolv AI weapons detection in action.

Of the three guns found this school year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, one was found by the Evolv scanner, according to district spokesperson Eddie Perez.

“The other 2 were discovered before they were attempted to be brought into the buildings,” Perez told LPM in an email.

Evolv is already in Louisville in non-school settings, including Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

But the company has critics who say it hasn’t been forthcoming about how the technology works and what its gaps are.

Not independently tested

Evolv executives claim the company screened 350 million people in 2022 and detected 176,000 weapons that were prevented from entering ballparks, arenas, schools and other gathering places.

Company co-founder Anil Chitkara told LPM that statistic is the company’s “best proof point” to show that its technology works.

But unlike many other security technologies, such as systems used by TSA, Evolv’s technology has never been tested and reviewed by an independent third party.

“Evolv’s position to us is that they will not allow us to test their system,” Don Maye told LPM.

Maye is with IPVM, a Pennsylvania-based firm that does independent testing of security technology. IPVM researchers test technology without accepting any payments from vendors, and sell their findings in an industry publication.

Maye said it’s unusual for a company not to let his firm verify that its technology works. That raised red flags, so IPVM started digging deeper.

In March 2022, Evolv claimed it had a “fully independent” third-party review. But through a records request, IPVM found Evolv paid for that report. Executives were also allowed to select the scoring criteria and edit 14 drafts of the report, removing many findings that reflected poorly on the technology. One of those deleted findings was that the equipment only detected 53% of knives.

Asked about those findings, Chitkara told LPM it's important not to make the technology's shortcomings public.

“If any gaps in the system are known to the public and to bad guys — bad people — they can use those to exploit the system,” Chitkara said.

Chitkara said Evolv does share those gaps “confidentially” with school district personnel and other potential buyers. But Maye said without a true third-party review by security experts, school personnel are at the mercy of Evolv.

“They [school personnel] are not experts in this technology, and they have to rely on people who are selling it to tell them what they can and cannot do, and I think that can create an imbalance of power,” Maye said.

After spending millions, one school system shelves Evolv

Evolv says it’s been transparent with school districts about its limits. However, at least one school district says the company was not forthcoming about how poorly the system detects knives.

Utica City Schools in upstate New York spent $3.7 million on an Evolv system. But acting superintendent Brian Nolan told LPM the district shelved the technology after it failed to detect a knife that was used in a stabbing at school.

Nolan said the system also missed a state trooper’s service weapon — twice — when he went through the sensor with the gun on his hip. Another district in South Carolina reported a similar issue in the system detecting a Glock pistol, according to Vice.

“It's good at finding weapons of mass destruction, or AK-47s, or AR-15s or machetes,” Nolan said. But as for the knife, “the much-trusted weapon of high school student choice,” according to Nolan, not so much. Evolv also often fails to detect pepper spray cans, Nolan said, another common weapon brought to school by high school students.

On the flipside, Evolv does sound the alarm for a number of items that are not weapons, and that are commonly carried by students: chromebooks, water bottles, umbrellas and binders.

In their presentation last week, JCPS staff acknowledged this limitation, but said they had been to other school districts where students passed those items around the scanner. Some districts ask students to hold their chromebooks or binders arms length from their bodies when they go through the scanner, so that staff can see when alerts are signaled by the innocuous item.

Both of those workarounds concern Maye.

“I think anybody who's involved in security knows that developing these patterns reveals vulnerabilities in the system that can be exploited,” Maye said.

Nolan, the school superintendent, said he thinks Evolv may be appropriate for large venues, like stadiums, but not for school systems.

“I don’t believe its purpose is well-intended for schools,” Nolan said.

After Utica City Schools shelved the Evolv system, the district spent $250,000 for metal detectors and bag x-ray machines.

“It took maybe two weeks for the students and the security team to adjust to the metal detectors … but the kids are doing really well with it. Now we have very little lag with students coming in the building and getting through and getting to class,” Nolan said.

As for the $3.7 million Evolv bill, Utica City Schools is still paying it. Most of the equipment is sitting in storage, Nolan said, except for one unit that the school system is leasing to a hospital, trying to make some money back.

All about staffing

The school security experts LPM spoke with for this story had mixed takes on Evolv’s AI weapons detection.

Jason Russell is a former Secret Service agent who now runs a school safety firm called Secure Education Consultants. Russell has recommended Evolv’s technology for a few of the districts the firm advises and is not put off by the lack of third-party review or research.

“I think it's hard to prove what you prevent,” Russell said.

Russell said he recommended Evolv for Oxford Community Schools in Michigan, after the 2021 shooting at Oxford High School that left four students dead and seven others wounded.

“They had the budget, and they had the staffing to do it correctly,” Russell said. “And we thought that that would be just another layer to either deter or detect any weapons that somebody might bring into that environment.”

Presented with JCPS’ tentative staffing plan for Evolv, Russell was not impressed.

Under the proposal floated by district leaders, the Evolv setup would take three staff members: one to pass around chromebooks and other items that set off the alarm, a second person to watch the video feed for alerts, and a third person to conduct secondary screenings of students when they trigger the alarm.

JCPS staff say the secondary screener would be a teacher or school administrator. That made Russell uncomfortable.

“When the device goes off, and it goes to a secondary search, that's the person that needs to be trained because theoretically, if it's a weapon detection system, it might have just detected a weapon,” he said.

“So I don't know that I think that's a great idea, unless they [school staff] are given some additional training,” he said.

Russell also said he thinks technology like Evolv or metal detectors should be the “last layer” to put in place in a school security plan, which Russell said includes well-trained school resource officers, or school-based police.

“You need to have good policies, procedures, other basic physical security measures before you start layering on advanced technology,” he said.

The front of a large brick high school with a grassy lawn.
Joaquin Sosa
Wikimedia commons
Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica City School district, where officials decided to shelve Evolv after a knife got through that was used in a stabbing.

Ken Trump, with the National Center for School Safety and Security Services, warned against Evolv and other new AI weapons detections systems altogether, saying he thinks school boards who buy them are making “knee-jerk reactions” to public pressure.

“School administrators and boards are solving a political problem — a school community relations problem — more than they're solving a safety problem,” Trump told LPM. His consulting company advises school districts on how to improve safety and security.

Trump said officials might be tempted to spend on expensive technology like Evolv at a time when many districts are flush with federal pandemic relief funds, which are due to expire next year.

But, Trump said, there’s no research to show Evolv’s technology is effective against mass shootings. What research does show works is alert, well-trained staff, and good staff-student relationships, Trump said.

Trump has provided forensic analysis in some of the nation’s most high-profile school shootings, including the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

“While the facts and merits vary, the common thread … is that they involve allegations of failures of human factors: people, policies, procedures, training, communications — not alleged failures of security hardware, products and equipment.”

The number-one way schools find out about threats is from students who come forward, Trump said.

“That doesn't give people the emotional security because it's less visible or invisible,” Trump said. “But it can be more effective than the shiny objects that school officials can point to … and tell people, ‘See we're doing something about school safety.’”

The Jefferson County Board of Education will meet to vote whether to move forward with AI weapons detection at 5 p.m. May 9 at the VanHoose Education Center. An hour of public comment period is scheduled before the vote.

LPM reached out to all five board members who expressed support for the plan at their April board meeting. District 5 board member Linda Duncan was the only to provide comment on the concerns from security experts.

“I am sure [JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio] will take these accounts about Evolv into consideration before making a vendor selection to recommend to the board,” Duncan said in an email.

District 3 board member James Craig declined to comment for this story, saying he was “frustrated” with an LPM reporter and didn’t “have confidence in findings” presented by LPM, after our investigation into the death of Tyree Smith.

That investigation, based on JCPS staff emails and interviews with Tyree’s mother, revealed JCPS staff and police knew about growing danger at Tyree’s bus stop, but failed to act. Craig called it “one-sided.”

The school district and its board declined to answer questions or explain staff’s actions for that story. They still refuse to comment, citing pending litigation.

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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