Technology won’t solve America’s mass school shooting dilemma

In the wake of the Parkland, Sandy Hook and other school shootings too numerous to mention, U.S. school districts and parents who pay the bills are pouring millions of dollars into high-tech surveillance, crisis response, and police technologies in a desperate search for solutions.

Will they work? Nobody really knows. Many of these new technologies-AI-enabled search, facial recognition software, license plate detection, patrolling robots, microphones that detect gunshots-are still experimental and have yet to be tested in live shooting situations.

One thing is certain. The promise of security does not come cheap. Officials in Broward County, Florida – where Parkland is located -have spent more than $11 million on security cameras over the past year and now have more than 12,500 cameras scattered in and around Broward County schools. The district shares real-time video with the county sheriff’s office.

The district’s latest big tech purchase is a $621,000 surveillance system from Aviglion, a division of Motorola Solutions, that specializes in high definition cameras linked to self-learning AI that “recognizes the movements and characteristics of people and vehicles, bringing actionable activity to the attention of those monitoring the cameras.” The company’s web site describes it like this:

Avigilon Appearance Search video analytics technology uses a sophisticated deep learning artificial intelligence search engine to sort through hours of footage with ease. This technology allows Fulton’s operators to click on a button and search for all instances of a person or vehicle across all cameras on a site, quickly and efficiently. This can save Fulton time and effort during critical investigations as Avigilon Appearance Search technology intelligently analyzes video data, helping to track a person’s or vehicle’s route and identify previous and last-known locations.

While the Broward system doesn’t use facial recognition software, its “appearance search” feature allows, for example, authorities to recognize that a student wore a black backpack and red shirt and let officials easily retrace the student’s path in a school building based on what he wore.

Broward County schools serve more than 271,500 students, have more than 32,000 full-time employees, and have their own 50-person police force. There are 116 new cameras planned for 36 schools, mostly high schools “with the highest security needs.” It’s unclear how ‘highest security needs’ is defined or determined.

Hardening school defenses everywhere

Broward County is by no means alone. Another giant school district–the Fulton County Georgia School System-which includes Atlanta-has also adopted Avigilon’s security system. Fulton County serves more than 96,000 students, has more than 12,000 full-time employees, including its own 62-person police force. The district is upgrading camera systems in every school to high-resolution Avigilon. Shannon Flounnery, executive director of safety and security for Fulton County schools said:

Being able to find a needle in a haystack for investigative purposes always serves to our advantage. The equipment also provides the opportunity to look and observe things that may appear to be abnormal and the ability to determine who may be around on our campuses who may not have a particular reason for being there.

Following a fatal shooting in Aztec, New Mexico in December 2017, Hermosa Elementary School began installing a network of wireless microphones that can detect the specific audio signature of gunfire and distinguish it from, say, firecrackers and other loud bangs. Small, golf-ball-sized sensors are placed high in classrooms and hallways and monitored continuously by the system. They promise to alert authorities to the sound and location of gunshots, within 20 seconds of firing. They can also identify the make and model of guns, and automatically lock doors and sound alarms throughout the school. The latter, of course, could be a catastrophe if a gun-toting individual is already inside a building.

The Hermosa system was installed by a New Mexico security company called EAGL Technology, which licenses it from the Department of Energy where engineers developed it based on the neighborhood-wide gunshot-detection technology police use in Chicago and Oakland. EAGL says a typical school installation is around $25,000.

The curious case of Texas City, TX

In the race to see which American school district can throw the most darts at the wall toward finding something, (anything?) that reassures parents that their kids are safe at school, the Texas City, TX School District is clearly in the lead. After hiring a former Secret Service agent to run its safety program, Texas City has rolled out a stunning number of initiatives. As described by the Wall Street Journal:

The school district here uses a facial recognition system to scan for people not allowed on school grounds. IDs track the whereabouts of students and staff. Teachers have cellphone panic buttons to alert police and soon will have special locks on classroom doors that can be activated remotely. A newly expanded security team keeps 22 AR-15 rifles in their offices.

The district has spent $6.3 million in eight months on these and other security measures to keep students safe from potential shooters.

My take

In the most prosperous country on earth, where chronically underpaid school teachers sometimes turn to Go Fund Me to raise enough money to buy school supplies for the children in their charge, millions of dollars in education funds are being diverted to dubious, unproven technologies that do little or nothing to address the root causes of school shootings. That is both a tragedy and a farce.

I don’t care how high-tech the touted solutions, sending children to schools that are rapidly becoming akin to high-security prisons cannot be healthy or financially sustainable over the long haul. The U.S. has demonstrated time after time that it will leave no stone unturned, no mountain unclimbed, no river not forded, no desert not crossed, no row not hoed, no cost too high to make schools safe for its children. This country will do anything except pass sensible gun laws.

The satiric web magazine The Onion runs the same headline after every shooting: “Nothing Can Be Done Says the Only Country in the World Where this Regularly Happens.”

Perhaps, that’s too cynical. There is a glimmer of good news. Nine states have adopted “red flag” gun laws, which allow the temporary seizure of weapons owned by individuals deemed threatening by family members or police, since last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It’s a start.


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