Some school districts bet on AI as future of security while others raise doubts

The groggy Perry Meridian High School students shuffle in at 7 a.m. and know what they have to do. They take their laptops, spiral notebooks and instruments out of their backpacks, lift them above their heads and walk through the new artificial intelligence weapons detection systems.

School administrators stand near the entrance, greeting students as they enter while they peer at tablets that are screening to make sure that no weapon sneaks in with the rush of students.

Sometimes, school staff pull a student to the side because the machine has picked up something questionable in their backpacks. In most cases, the school resource officer looks through their bags and pulls out an innocent metal water bottle, hairspray canister, or eyeglass case. Some students go through the detector again to make sure they are all clear.

For some students across central Indiana, encountering security measures typically seen at a sporting event or at the airport is all part of the new normal start to the school day.

Perry Township reflects a nationwide trend of school districts purchasing new artificial intelligence, or AI, software to help detect weapons in schools, as a way to prevent the increasingly violent environment in which teens live from entering their schools.

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“We can’t turn a blind eye to the violence that happens in our community and it’s our task as educators to make sure that violence stays outside the doors,” said Chris Sampson, associate superintendent of Perry Township Schools in December when showcasing the new devices to the media.

However, some criticize the new technology, raising concern that school districts are engaging in “security theater” and that schools need to let evidence rather than emotion dictate their school security plans.

As more schools invest in these state-of-the-art and expensive surveillance systems, critics warn that these are not foolproof and schools should instead invest resources in fighting other student safety concerns like bullying, verbal aggression, teen suicide and fighting.

Central Indiana school districts using AI devices

Perry Township purchased the new detectors, now in both of their high schools, from Evolv Technologies for nearly $1.5 million in May.

Lawrence Township recently deployed a similar AI weapons detection system in their high schools and middle schools. The district purchased the OPENGATE devices from Communications Technologies Inc. in September for a little over $347,000.

The main difference between the two systems is that the Evolv devices come with cameras that show images on tablets of locations of possible weapons on the student. The Opengate lacks cameras providing the high-tech images and merely alerts screeners if a potential weapon is detected.

New metal detectors specialized with technology to recognize weapons are set up near an entrance Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. These metal detectors were implemented across Lawrence Township’s secondary schools.

Lawrence officials decided that the district did not need the cameras and would achieve the same quality of screening with the cheaper option, said Lawrence Township’s chief operations officer, Rodger Smith at a September school board meeting.

“We’re just looking at efficiencies and how we use them,” Smith said to board members. “We don’t need all the extra items.”

Perry Township likes how the Evolv system integrates with their security systems already in place and chose Evolv after researching similar devices on the market, Sampson said.

Before the new AI devices arrived in the districts, Lawrence and Perry Township would randomly screen students through traditional metal detectors, a process that could take a lot of time, Lawrence Township leaders said.

Now with these new AI detectors, schools can scan all of their students every day without a worry that screening will slow down the start of the school day.

Students told IndyStar that they prefer these new devices to traditional metal detectors, with many saying the new system makes them feel safer at school.

“Although it’s disappointing that we’ve come to this, like as a country, I think it’s necessary and it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Isaiah Needam, a senior at Perry Meridian High School. “And with an automatic system like this, the school can focus on what really matters in a school which is our education.”

While students say that they did not live in fear before the arrival of the new system, they do report periodic instances of violence during the school day. In the first weeks of school in the fall, central Indiana County saw more than half a dozen instances of students bringing weapons to school.

And arguments and fights, students say, are not uncommon, even though in most instances weapons are not involved.

“I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about, or that my friends had anything on them, but random things would spark up, like in lunch you would see someone fighting,” said Brianna Baariu, a Lawrence North High School junior. “Now I’m safe knowing that I don’t have to worry about the unexpected weapon showing up.”

Perry and Lawrence Township leaders said they may consider expanding the devices into middle or elementary schools in the district in the future.

Not everyone is a fan of the AI security systems

Some security experts question the necessity of such AI weapons detection systems, asking whether they help stop youth violence.

Ken Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services, told IndyStar that he views these new AI devices as a form of “security theater” and believes there are better ways to improve security in schools. In addition, he noted, there have been several instances of students slipping weapons past these detection devices.

“A lot of this provides the perception of increased security and an emotional security blanket for parents until they have their first incident where one got through,” Trump said.

The Evolv devices have come under scrutiny over their ability to detect small knives after a student in Utica, N.Y. passed through a system undetected with a knife and later stabbed a student. After the incident, the superintendent of Utica schools removed the detector from the high school.

Evolv has said that their devices are not going to stop all threats from entering schools but that the detectors complement schools’ security systems already in place.

“This is a layer of safety and security,” said Jill Lemond, the head of education for Evolv Technologies. “…I think we’re the best when it comes to weapons detection, but it has to be supported by the people and the processes and it has to fit into an overall safety and security plan.”

Instead of buying the AI systems, Trump believes that schools should instead be funneling those resources into tackling the everyday issues affecting student safety like bullying and depression.

“Having one school shooting is one too many, I don’t want to minimize that,” Trump said. “But it’s also one threat that has a high impact and low probability on a broad threat continuum…you have to look at those many other threats of fighting, verbal aggression, bullying, sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, noncustodial parents, natural disasters, the list goes on and on.”

How the weapons detectors work

The AI weapons detectors, like the ones from Evolv and OPENGATE, operate similarly in that they are meant to be a seamless screening process, where students don’t have to take off any bookbags or clothing to be checked.

This type of technology is gaining popularity amongst school districts; Evolv’s devices are now in more than 700 schools in the U.S. and more than 20 schools just in Indiana. Louisville and Atlanta both have the devices in most of their public schools.

The Evolv devices are meant to only pick up some metal objects and are mostly screening for certain shapes and density, Lemond said.

Students and faculty demonstrate the new metal detectors specialized with technology to recognize weapons Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. Due to a type of metal in Chromebook laptops matching the metal of some firearms, students are asked to lift their laptops above the machine when they walk into the building. These metal detectors were implemented across Lawrence Township’s secondary schools.

When Perry Township students walk through the devices holding their laptops above their heads, the image on the Evolv iPad shows a red box around the laptop, telling the school personnel that the student doesn’t need to be stopped.

The devices are mainly meant to detect “weapons of mass destruction” like firearms but can also pick up on large knives, said Lawrence Township’s director of security Jim Parish.

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During some Perry Township athletic events, Sampson said, their detectors have caught some adults who forgot to leave their guns in their car before entering school grounds. In those cases, Sampson said the adults were asked to return the gun to the car before entering the game.

AI surveillance software in school cameras

Center Grove Community Schools chose a different kind of AI technology, one integrated with its camera system in all nine of its schools.

Created by a company called ZeroEyes, the surveillance system detects when a firearm is brandished on school property and then sends instant alerts to the proper authorities.

Once the AI software detects a possible firearm on school grounds, the system alerts the ZeroEyes operation center manned by military and law enforcement professionals 24/7. The professionals then determine if the threat of a brandished firearm is real or not.