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Jefferson County Board of Education votes to bring in weapons detectors

Activists gathered with signs to speak against bringing weapons detectors into Jefferson County Public Schools.
Jess Clark
Activists gathered to speak against bringing weapons detectors into Jefferson County Public Schools.

The vote directs JCPS staff to find a vendor to implement weapons detection technology in middle and high schools, but board members and staff say that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be Evolv, a company that’s been criticized for its efficacy and lack of transparency.

Jefferson County Public Schools is shopping for a weapons detections system, after the Jefferson County Board of Education voted 5-2 Tuesday to bring gun-sensing technology to JCPS middle and high schools.

Board members are facing increasing public pressure to respond to guns found in JCPS schools.

Since students returned to school buildings after COVID shutdowns, the number of guns found on campuses spiked, according to data obtained by LPM News.

In 2018-2019, the last full school year before the pandemic began, school staff confiscated 16 handguns.

In the 2021-2022 school year, that number more than doubled to 34. This school year, 26 handguns have been confiscated in JCPS schools so far.

“I do not want to be responsible for gun violence anywhere,” board chair and District 1 member Diane Porter said in explaining her “yes” vote.

“If we don't put something in place to help us screen these out, it will just increase,” District 5 board member Linda Duncan said. “Doing nothing, to me, is not an option.”

The vote comes after a majority of board members expressed interest in purchasing artificial intelligence weapons detection. In April, JCPS staff gave board members a presentation about technology from a company called Evolv, which says its system can detect guns and other weapons in bags and under clothing.

JCPS staff estimate installing Evolv at all middle and high schools would cost the district $17 million over five years. That figure does not include the additional staffing costs required to operate the system.

However, some security experts warn school districts against using Evolv because of the high cost and the company’s lack of transparency. The company refuses to allow an independent third party to test its equipment, and at least one school district says Evolv was not forthcoming about how poorly the system detects knives.

Several people flagged those issues during about 45 minutes of public comment before the vote.

“I’m begging you to not be so hasty in jumping on board with this trendy new tech,” said Lindsay Shelden, an activist with Louisville Standing Up For Racial Justice. “Can we really trust Evolv? They refuse to let independent third parties test their technology!”

District 2 board member Chris Kolb echoed those concerns and questioned why the presentation JCPS staff gave the board in April did not include widely circulated critiques and drawbacks of the AI weapons technology and the company that makes it.

Those criticisms were the subject of stories by LPM and the Courier Journal, published days after the board first signaled its interest in the technology.

“It's very difficult to understand why that information wasn't a part of what we have been informed about,” Kolb said. “When information like this comes out in the media after the board signals their desire to move in a certain direction, it frankly makes us look very foolish.”

Kolb voted against the motion, saying there is little to no evidence AI weapons detection keeps students safe.

“Every dollar that we spend on this is one dollar that we're not going to invest in things that we know do improve school safety,” he said. “It's one dollar that we're not going to invest in our staff — not in teachers, not in counselors, not in safety administrators.”

Board member Joe Marshall of District 4 was the only other “no” vote.

Several members of the public who spoke against adding weapons detectors said they worried about the increased potential for students to enter the criminal justice system.

“I think what we need to understand is that some kids are bringing guns to schools because they are afraid, and we're going to criminalize their fear. And that is completely unacceptable,” said Felicia Nu’Man with the Louisville Urban League.

Nu’Man also expressed frustration at the speed with which board members were pushing forward on weapons detection without community input.

“It was our impression, I think some of the community's impression, that we would get to engage and represent ourselves and the community, and that children’s parents would get to have an involvement in this,” she said.

Lyndon Pryor, also with the Louisville Urban League, noted that a promised task force on guns in schools has not yet been formed.

The Louisville Urban League and others said they were also opposed to adding AI weapons detectors because it would likely mean hiring more armed school police officers. Under the proposal floated by JCPS Chief of Staff Katy DeFerrari, an armed school security officer would provide the final screening if a possible weapon is detected.

“LMPD or other law enforcement will be called in every time a gun is suspected,” local activist Sonja Wilde-De Vries said. “This is the same LMPD that was called out by the Department of Justice for racism, brutality, and lethal force.”

District 6 board member Corrie Shull, who is usually cautious to increase police presence, supported moving forward with weapons detection.

“I do think that we can remove guns from our buildings without criminalizing students,” Shull said.

“I will say that again, that when a kid makes a bad decision, that does not mean that that child should go to jail, neither does it mean that that child should necessarily be placed in an alternative school. So maybe we need to address some of our policies.”

State law requires school districts to expel students who are found to have brought a weapon to school. Most end up in alternative educational settings.

Deputy Mayor David James, who oversees the city's emergency services and previously served as Louisville Metro Council president, arrived to speak in favor of bringing in AI weapons detection.

“I'm here to beg you to please vote ‘yes’ for this system,” James said.

James, a former police officer, rallied off numerous statistics about the number of young people who were either shot or killed within the past three years.

None of those shootings happened inside a JCPS school building, as was noted by Pryor.

“All of those horrible horrendous acts occurred in spaces that are not schools, which means we have a city problem, we have a community problem,” Pryor said.

Asked to weigh in on the technology, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he thinks it can be “effective.”

“And I think if this is something that is not effective, we can take away,” Pollio said.

Other vendors besides Evolv?

Tuesday’s vote directs JCPS staff to find a vendor to implement weapons detection technology in middle and high schools. But board members and staff say that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be Evolv.

“We have not selected a company,” board chair Diane Porter said.

“This is not about a company,” DeFerrari said. “This is about a technology.”

However, a security expert LPM spoke with said Evolv is the only company that makes the specific AI weapons detection technology DeFerrari described to board members.

Evolv is also the only company scheduled to do a “proof of concept” for the district. The firm is bringing its equipment to Butler High School this month for the community to try out.

DeFerrari said other vendors, if identified, would also be allowed to perform a proof of concept.

Asked if JCPS was aware of any other vendors that make the technology besides Evolv, JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert sent a statement saying that would become clear through the vetting process.

“The responses to the issued [request for proposal] should identify what other companies have this AI technology, assuming they want to do business with JCPS,” he wrote.

The plan is for the detectors to be brought into half of JCPS high schools throughout the fall of 2023, and in all high schools by the end of the 2023-2024 school year. JCPS plans to add the technology to middle schools in the fall of 2024.

This story has been updated to include David James' current title.

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

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

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