How a tech company steered JCPS into a multimillion-dollar weapons detection deal
Records show weapons detection manufacturer Evolv was highly involved in shaping Jefferson County Public Schools’ security plans — too involved, according to some.
JCPS officials allowed the publicly traded manufacturer to help craft the proposal to bring in weapons detection, emails show. Months later, an Evolv reseller got a two-year contract worth $11.7 million.
Meanwhile, leaders from another company that offered similar, cheaper technology say they were blocked from fair competition.
District leaders say the process for selecting Evolv’s product was “fair” and followed “customary procedures.”
Evolv’s yearslong sales push to JCPS
Evolv, which is based in Massachusetts, markets its product as artificial intelligence weapons detection. Originally aimed at large entertainment venues, Evolv entered the market for school security in late 2019.
Emails show the company first gained traction with JCPS in November 2021, when an Evolv regional manager pitched the product in a meeting with top JCPS staff.
More than a year later, records show email communication between Evolv and JCPS picked up on Feb. 8, 2023. That was the day after the Jefferson County Board of Education passed a resolution to explore bringing metal detectors into schools. Over the following weeks, Louisville-based Evolv sales representative Jennifer Tuggle introduced herself in several emails to high-up JCPS officials and school board members. Tuggle presented herself as “a JCPS Crosby Middle School parent as well as the local Account Executive for Evolv.”
Emails show Tuggle secured a meeting with JCPS Chief of Staff Katy DeFerrari in late February. A couple of weeks later, Tuggle and DeFerrari traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, where DeFerrari saw Evolv’s equipment in action in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Evolv involved in crafting proposal to board
Over two weeks in March 2023, DeFerrari and Tuggle emailed almost daily, working together to craft a presentation to the board that centered on Evolv.
“Hi Jennifer!” DeFerrari wrote Tuggle on March 13. “I wanted to give you a list of some items that [would] be helpful when crafting our proposal to the Board.”
DeFerrari asked for talking points that detail how Evolv distinguishes its technology from metal detectors. That’s a distinction Evolv has been criticized for making. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is investigating the company for alleged misleading marketing.
DeFerrari also asked Evolv, which stood to gain millions from a deal with JCPS, to detail the limitations of its own technology.
Tuggle responded that day, looping in representatives of Johnson Controls Security Solutions (Johnson), an Evolv vendor that would eventually win the multimillion-dollar contract to install the equipment.
Johnson is an Evolv “partner” — essentially operating as a middleman between the company and JCPS. Tuggle asked Johnson staff to provide pricing info and set up a visit to Duval County Schools in Florida, which uses Evolv’s system.
Tuggle laid out “next steps,” including for “Evolv to assist JCPS leadership with crafting [a] proposal for [the] April board meeting.”
LPM asked DeFerrari if she sought similarly detailed information from any other weapons detection company or vendor. JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan responded. She did not directly answer the question, but noted in a statement that JCPS administrators had met with a vendor of a similar product in August 2022.
Callahan also noted that DeFerrari and other JCPS staff visited Fayette County Public Schools, which uses weapons detectors that are not made by Evolv.
“As with any technology, system, academic platform or other products the Board or District might be interested in purchasing, much of the information presented to the Board would come from vendors and JCPS’ own research,” Callahan wrote.
Evolv tries to ‘squash’ public opposition
In DeFerrari’s presentation to the school board on April 25, 2023, she rarely mentioned Evolv by name, but the proposal focused exclusively on the specific technology offered by the company.
The equipment detects the type of metal used in firearms and other weapons. Cameras feed an image to staff members on tablets. If a potential weapon is detected, a box appears in the image over the area where it’s located.
DeFerrari argued Evolv’s technology would allow a high volume of students to pass through quickly without emptying their backpacks. She also said the target-locating feature would limit pat-downs and profiling.
“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,” she told the board.
After Tuggle’s work in helping JCPS staff present Evolv’s product to the board, emails show she was not happy with the reaction from the public. Records also show Tuggle sought help from JCPS staff to sway public opinion.
“After watching the local news coverage of this week’s board meeting, I am concerned about the impression that has been given that ‘no one knows if Evolv works,’” Tuggle wrote.
“This is vastly inaccurate and I am very hopeful we can squash this inaccuracy to both the board and the public with the facts.”
Tuggle appears to be referring to comments made during the meeting by District 2 board member Chris Kolb, who pointed out that there is “little to no research” on the effectiveness of Evolv’s technology.
Several members of the public spoke out against metal detection, expressing concerns that they will lead to the criminalization of students and may not be effective in understaffed schools.
The company was also under scrutiny for trying to pass off a 2022 analysis of its equipment as “fully independent,” even though media reports revealed Evolv paid for the research and was allowed to edit results.
DeFerrari and other staff did not mention those reports in the presentation to school board members.
DeFerrari did, however, mention another drawback of Evolv’s system: The alarm goes off on Chromebooks, water bottles and umbrellas — all objects students commonly bring to school.
In Tuggle’s post-presentation email to DeFerrari, she included several Evolv blog posts touting the technology’s efficacy. She also noted that the product is Safety Act “designated” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
DHS grants the designation based on a review of information submitted by the company. The designation means, based on submitted information, DHS believes the technology is proven to be effective at preventing acts of terrorism. It does not mean DHS has independently tested the tech or reviewed any third-party research.
“What are your thoughts on how you or others may be able to present these items to the board and public?” Tuggle asked DeFerrari. She also offered to provide a security consultant that was not an Evolv employee.
DeFerrari did not respond by email.
Neither Tuggle nor an Evolv spokesperson responded to a request for comment about the April 28 email.
RFP written around Evolv specifications
Records show Evolv attempted to help craft JCPS’ request for proposal, or RFP. Kentucky state procurement regulations say potential vendors are not allowed to participate in the RFP-writing process for state-level entities. It’s unclear how strictly JCPS must abide by those guidelines under district policy.
In a statement, JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said the “RFP process for weapon detection systems was fair and followed our customary procedures.”
In early emails to top JCPS officials, Evolv salesperson Kyle Correll provided links to RFPs from school districts in Illinois and Tennessee “designed for our [Evolv’s] system.” Evolv ultimately won those contracts.
The specifications in the RFPs Correll provided match many of those detailed in Evolv’s marketing materials, including a processing rate of over 3,500 people an hour, tablets that show where the threat was detected, and the ability to distinguish between weapons and “harmless personal items.”
JCPS’ final RFP goes even further than those provided by Correll in describing Evolv’s specific technology, down to the location of the lights on the unit.
Attorney Missy Copeland said the way JCPS went about soliciting bids raises some red flags.
“One competitor can’t be so involved in writing the specifications or giving the exact requirements that it would benefit them to the disadvantage of their competitors,” Copeland told LPM.
Copeland practices law in South Carolina and is on the American Bar Association’s team of lawyers revising the national model procurement code. Many states, including Kentucky, have adopted that code. Copeland said allowing one company too much influence over the RFP is an organizational conflict of interest because it limits competition and drives up costs for taxpayers.
“If one person knows, ‘Hey, I’m the only one competing for this, I can charge whatever I want,’” she said.
The federal government has clear guidelines to prevent organizational conflicts of interest in contracts and purchasing, Copeland said. But for states and local agencies, it’s murkier legal territory.
Most states, including Kentucky, have laws and policies that prevent government employees from acting on individual conflicts of interest. But Copeland said state laws are less clear when it comes to organizational conflicts.
Copeland said it’s OK for agencies to decide they want a specific technology or product that only one company makes. But in those cases, agencies are supposed to use a single source contract, which requires the agency to justify in writing why no other product will do.
JCPS did not go that route.
“While JCPS had the opportunity under Model Procurement law to purchase Evolv systems through an existing public contract, we chose instead to issue a full RFP to ensure we were exhausting all options and seeking all vendors that had the equipment we were looking for,” Callahan wrote.
An Evolv spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the company’s involvement in crafting the RFP or board proposal.
Competitor has concerns about Evolv’s pre-bid involvement
The specificity with which the RFP matched Evolv’s marketing materials alarmed at least one vendor who competed for the contract with a similar product.
LPM obtained emails to JCPS staff and board members from representatives of CTI. CTI is a St. Louis-based security firm that sells CEIA Opengate — the main competitor to Evolv’s system.
Like Evolv, CEIA says its system can distinguish between harmless metal objects and weapons. Unlike Evolv, CEIA does not show where on the person a potential weapon is detected.
CEIA is also far less expensive than Evolv. CTI Vice President of Sales Dave Childs estimated the five-year cost for JCPS would be around $3 million, compared to Evolv’s $17 million estimated cost. Childs also noted that JCPS would own the CEIA equipment outright, while Evolv’s quote was for the cost of leasing the equipment.
“Admittedly a little surprised to be honest with you,” Childs wrote to all seven Jefferson County Board of Education members the day of DeFerrari’s presentation on Evolv.
“When we reached back out in January, we were told that the project was not being considered.”
Emails show Childs had given top JCPS staff a virtual demonstration in October 2022, but was later told they had “reservations” about implementing the technology during a staffing shortage.
Childs kept following up over the spring of 2023, repeatedly asking for an opportunity to demo the CEIA product with board members or DeFerrari, who was leading the project.
Childs’ emails became increasingly frustrated in tone. In one message, Childs wrote that he had seen DeFerrari’s presentation to the board about Evolv’s tech on April 25, 2023.
“If this does go out to RFP, it will clearly be written around the Evolv,” he wrote. He later emailed demo videos to DeFerrari.
“Katy [DeFerrari], would you be open to reviewing the videos, and setting up an onsite demo? Due diligence?” Childs wrote on May 15, 2023.
DeFerrari didn’t grant Childs an opportunity to present. Instead, she directed him to the RFP application page.
Meanwhile, DeFerrari had already set up multiple on-site demos with Evolv equipment at Butler High School in May.
Once the RFP was released, Childs responded again.
“Just received the RFP for Weapons Detection solution,” he wrote. “It’s written around Evolve [sic] as I had mentioned. We will still be responding.”
Childs’ company did not get the contract. A bid scoring rubric shows it had the highest score for price point, but lowest scores for conforming to the RFP.
Asked to respond to Childs’ allegations that the process was unfair, district spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said the company did not include all of the required information in its proposal.
She also noted that “neither CTI nor any other company filed an appeal challenging the RFP process or the awarding of the contract.”
JCPS is hoping to have Evolv’s weapons detection systems in several high school schools by the end of October.
DeFerrari has previously said the district’s plan is to have Evolv equipment in all JCPS high schools by the end of the school year. Next year, JCPS plans to install the sensors in middle schools.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.