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JCPS approves $11.7M for AI weapons detection in schools

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 voted Tuesday night to award a $11.7 million contract to Johnson Controls Security Solutions to install a controversial weapons detection system in schools.

The new system, developed by Evolv Technology, uses artificial intelligence to check students for guns and other weapons, rather than traditional metal detection. The goal is to reduce the amount of violence in schools while avoiding pat-downs and bag searches. An investigation by LPM News found there’s little research supporting the effectiveness of AI weapons detection, and at least one school that rolled out the technology later shelved it.

The Board of Education approved the contract for the new system in a 5-1 vote, with District 2’s Chris Kolb being the lone holdout. Prior to the vote, Kolb gave a lengthy speech arguing that the use of weapons detectors and security guards don’t lead to improved student safety and can actually lead to more violence. He pointed to numerous studies highlighted by the National Association of School Psychologists that backed up his claims.

“Every dollar we spend on things that don’t work is a dollar we can’t spend on things that do work,” Kolb said. “And it won’t just be the flawed Evolv devices we’ll end up paying for. When these devices fail to detect guns and knives, some people will clamor for JCPS to do even more and some other company will come by with some other product to sell us.”

None of the other board members spoke before voting to approve the contract.

At a meeting in May, District 5 Board Member Linda Duncan was impressed by the experience of officials at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in North Carolina, who saw a big drop in the number of guns they found.

“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 during that meeting.

The AI weapons detection scanners developed by Evolv are already being used in Louisville in non-school settings, including at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

JCPS officials plan to have three staff members operating each of the AI weapons detection checkpoints: one person to pass around Chromebooks and other devices known to create false positives, one person to watch the video feed for alerts and another person to conduct secondary screenings like pat-downs. The secondary screener will be a teacher or administrator.

Evolv executives claim the company screened 350 million people last year and detected 176,000 weapons that were prevented from entering schools and other venues. The effectiveness of the Evolv system has not been independently tested and analyzed.

School security experts who spoke to LPM News in May said AI weapons detection is good at identifying guns and rifles, but not as accurate when it comes to knives, “the much-trusted weapon of high school student choice.” The system also alerts officials to a number of items that aren’t weapons, like water bottles, umbrellas and binders.

The $11.7 million being spent by JCPS will cover two years of implementing and operating the Evolv weapons detectors. The school district will also have the option to renew the contract for up to three additional years after that.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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