Report shows A.I. weapons detectors used in schools are not always effective

Updated: Jun. 22, 2023 at 5:50 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Artificial Intelligence is often presented as providing an easy solution to the problems we face in every aspect of our lives including keeping our schools weapons-free.

At least, that’s how one company marketed its A.I. technology to schools across the country. But the promise may have come with pitfalls.

It’s been three semesters since James Island Charter School implemented the Evolv weapons detection system at its entrances.

The A.I. software promises to detect concealed weapons while ignoring common everyday items that would set off metal detectors so as to not impede the flow of crowds.

They’re used in schools, at professional sporting events and entertainment venues.

Since they were put in place at the high school, the detectors have caught three knives and zero guns.

“I would say it is a huge deterrent and very successful for what we have in place,” Security Director Brad Wilson says. “Security is the biggest issue that we have. I want to be part of the solution.”

Principal Tim Thorn bought the three detectors with COVID ESSER funds totaling $260,000 with the school board’s approval to prevent active shooter events.

Two were purchased for front entrances and another for sporting events. They also cost $20,000 each per year to run.

Thorn says the school used to do random searches.

“They’re coming through seamlessly and no kid’s been tardy because of this,” Thorn says. “The peace of mind they provide for us, for our kids and our parents is tremendous.”

The school has even been promoted on Evolv’s website and has been approached by other schools out-of-state interested in making the investment too.

The Williamsburg County School District has also implemented the scanners at its middle and high schools this past year, calling the technology “superior” in a release last fall.

“If it feels too good to be true. It probably isn’t true,” school safety expert Ken Trump says.

The Massachusetts company Evolv Technology originally marketed itself as creating “weapons-free zones.”

A research study was done by the University of Southern Mississippi for the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security and a corresponding report shows the detectors are doing almost exactly what’s been promised.

But there was another report that was not made available to the public, one first obtained by our sister station Atlanta News First, that shows a different picture.

In a 2021 field test in Ohio the detectors didn’t catch knives 42% of the time.

It also missed micro compact guns during two walkthroughs.

School security expert Ken Trump says the technology provides more “security theater” than actual safety.

He also says that knives are also among the most common weapons found at schools.

“School leaders are buying A.I. weapons detection systems to solve political problems, school community relations problems, pressure from parents to do something, do anything, do it now and do it fast,” Trump says.

According to the Internet Protocol Video Market, a security and surveillance research group, the system failed to detect a large knife at a school in Utica, New York last fall leading to a stabbing incident.

That district has since ditched the multi-million-dollar system altogether.

Dorchester District Two and the Berkeley County School District have considered these kinds of security measures in their schools but have not purchased them, largely due to the high costs.

DD2 has opted to implement traditional metal detectors at random during the next school year.

Evolv has since changed its tune since reports highlighted the results of the 2021 study. It now markets itself as providing “safer zones” rather than weapons-free ones.

Jill Lemond, the director of education for the company, says that was the result of wanting to inform but not give too much information to “bad actors”.

It did not make the full report public as the details would “put the public at risk.”, according to the company’s FAQ page.

“Really trying to make sure that we’re conveying what it is that we do and being very careful to express what we don’t do and we don’t do everything. No. We are not a perfect solution. And by the way, one doesn’t exist yet,” Lemond says.

The company says it updates its software at least quarterly, though it’s not clear if the flaws found in the 2021 report have been fixed.

“Educators need to be wise consumers; do their due diligence and I think they’ll find they’re a lot of gaps and limitations and their limited resources can and should be elsewhere,” Trump says.

Trump recommends schools invest in “invisible measures” such as building a culture of trust between students and staff, and providing both mental and social emotional support rather than more “security theater”

“That’s not a shiny object that you can put outside and point to and tell parents you’ve made schools safer, but it’s more impactful,” he says.

This past year, two Charleston County School district schools have been piloting weapon screenings through Ceia. Though the Opengate technology is similar to Evolv, it’s not clear if that system has the same inconsistencies.

When asked about the report, Thorn said in an email that the security team will continue to work with Evolv. He also says that the system is “only one of many ways we strive to keep our students and staff safe” and pointed to other safety measures the school implements.

That includes weekly classroom and car searches, as well as promoting open communication through “see something, say something”, the Stop It App and advisory programs.

The Williamsburg County School District did not respond to comment regarding the report.