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JCPS committee considers new weapons screening policy

Two security sensors flank the entrance to a modern building.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
Evolv's AI weapons detectors are already in non-school settings in Louisville, including the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

The Jefferson County Board of Education’s policy committee considered new regulations for screening students with weapons detection systems Monday night. It’s a step in the district’s attempt to increase safety, but the technology has its detractors.

The proposed policy outlines how students should be screened when Jefferson County Public Schools brings in artificial intelligence weapons detection equipment. The technology is made by a company called Evolv and leased to the district under a two-year $11.7 million dollar contract through Johnson Controls Security Solutions.

Under the proposed policy, school administrators “may” authorize use of weapons detectors to search all students or their personal belongings entering the premises, or to search an individual student “when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the student is concealing a weapon.”

The proposed policy requires the school administrator to be trained in using the weapons detection technology. It requires the search to be “reasonable in scope and duration,” not “excessively intrusive” and conducted in a “uniform manner.”

Who is doing the searching?

Under the proposed policy, any adult conducting searches must be the school principal or a certified employee “directly responsible for the conduct of the student.”

JCPS Chief of Staff Katy DeFerrari told LPM News the language may need to be adjusted before it becomes final, because her goal is to have only school-based administrators or school safety administrators conduct secondary screenings.

“We're not going to have a teacher searching a student,” Deferrari said.

Under the proposal, in most cases pat-downs must be conducted by a certified employee who is the “same sex” as the student, and witnessed by another employee of the “same sex.”

Transgender and nonbinary students would be allowed to choose the sex of the employee who conducts the pat-down, as well as the sex of the witness.

“Because gender identity is a fluid thing, we’re allowing transgender students to make that choice for themselves,” JCPS Executive Administrator of Policy and Systems Jonathan Lowe told the policy committee Monday.

What happens when the alarm goes off?

If students activate the detection device they may be asked to go through again, and a pat-down may be conducted if the student repeatedly activates the alarm.

Evolv says its equipment is designed to detect firearms, knives and other deadly weapons, without sounding the alarm for innocuous metal objects like keys, phones and change. However the company admits Chromebooks, metal water bottles and umbrellas are all likely to trigger the alarm.

What happens if a weapon is found?

The policy discussed Monday does not outline what happens if staff find a firearm or other deadly weapon on a student. Neither does it clarify the role of the school resource officer or other school-based law enforcement.

DeFerrari said those details will come later after the district has had a chance to get feedback from a community task force, school leaders and the JCPS Security and Investigations team.

“I would really like to see those done in early October,” DeFerrari said. “If we try to stick with our timeline, we're looking to try to go live at some schools before the end of October.”

Security experts interviewed by LPM News for a previous story said they had concerns about school personnel conducting searches for guns. Education consultant Jason Russell said ideally it should be trained security personnel who conduct secondary searches, and that armed school resource officers should be close at hand to respond.

Those suggestions, however, are at odds with concerns from some school board members that armed law enforcement officers on site may make some students feel less safe, especially Black and low-income students, whose communities are subject to discriminatory policing.

DeFerrari said the SRO will not be part of the screening process.

“They’re just there for support as needed,” she said.

It’s not clear how close at hand SROs would be during the screening process, since the district has more than 150 school buildings and at most 30 SROs districtwide.

What are the consequences for students found to have weapons or illegal drugs?

The proposed district policy says that searches conducted as the result of activating the detector will be “limited to a search for weapons,” and will stop after the item that activated the device is located.

“[H]owever any other illegal items located during the search may be confiscated,” the policy reads.

The discovery of those items could prompt disciplinary action, or even legal action against the student.

Standing district policy and state law require JCPS employees to “promptly make a report” to the JCPS Security and Investigations Unit or other law enforcement agencies if they “have reasonable cause to believe” students have controlled substances, such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco and nicotine products.

“Principals shall immediately report to law enforcement officials when an act has occurred on school property or at a school-sponsored function that involves student possession of a controlled substance in violation of the law,” JCBE policy 09.432 reads.

However the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook says school staff who find drugs or alcohol “may” notify law enforcement officials.

As for weapons, the JCPS Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook says any student found to be in possession of a weapon or toy weapon will be removed for a year from their school, and placed into an alternative setting. That consequence applies to possession of a broad array of objects that are weapons or could be used as weapons, including firearms, paintball guns, toy guns, tasers, knives, “blunt objects,” pepper spray or “objects” more broadly.

Officials say that policy is consistent withKentucky state law, which requires districts to expel students found in possession of a weapon for 12 months.

Last year JCPS reported 617 instances in which students were disciplined for bringing a weapon or toy weapon to school. JCPS reported 1,616 instances in which students were disciplined for drug-related incidents.

State law also requires school staff to report the carrying, possession or use of a “deadly” weapon to law enforcement. Under state law, “deadly” weapons include firearms, and knives, other than “common pocket knives” or hunting knives.

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

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