Can Tech Protect US Schools from Mass Shootings?

    06 June 2023

    The many school shootings across the United States have led to demand from schools for advanced technology security systems.

    A little over one year ago, a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. Days later, taser maker Axon Enterprise had an idea for how to prevent such attacks. It suggested schools use "non-lethal" drones that are powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

    Many people who work at the company disagreed with the idea. The company's own AI ethics board quit in protest. The event showed the growing unease about the ethics and effectiveness of security tools being marketed to American schools.

    Law enforcement officers stage in a hallway after Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary school to kill 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 24, 2022 in a still image from surveillance video.
    Law enforcement officers stage in a hallway after Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary school to kill 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 24, 2022 in a still image from surveillance video.

    Schools have been able to use nearly $200 billion in new COVID-19 relief money and other government funding to purchase such tools, said Odis Johnson Jr. He is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools in Baltimore, Maryland.

    More schools have more money, he said. "And there's a robust tech sector pushing these technologies."

    Rita Bishop is the former head of the school system in Roanoke, Virginia. She said she had to stop taking calls from companies that sell things like AI-powered surveillance cameras and weapons detectors.

    Gun-detection systems

    For some experts and school safety officials, new tech-based tools are just one way to prevent school violence.

    Dave Fraser is head of Omnilert. The company developed an AI-powered tool that connects to school surveillance cameras to detect guns.

    Charles County Public Schools in Maryland decided to use Omnilert. Jason Stoddard is the school system's security director. He said he noticed that the shooters in Uvalde and in another attack had neared the school with their guns drawn. That played a part in the school system's decision to use Omnilert.

    Omnilert is one of a growing list of companies offering gun-detection technologies.

    ZeroEyes said its gun detection technology is used in schools and other places in over 30 states. Like Omnilert, it has human reviewers who check guns that its AI system detects.

    According to the Intercept news site, more than 65 school systems have bought or tested AI gun-detection tools since 2018. The schools spent a total of over $45 million on the technologies.

    There are serious questions, however, about the effectiveness of such tools, said Ken Trump. He is the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting group.

    He said schools have become testing grounds for "very underdeveloped AI software."

    He said schools have been increasingly drawn to tech solutions without taking simple measures. He said schools have not looked to measures like training teachers on how to respond to shootings, making structural improvements to buildings, and keeping doors locked.

    Surveillance tools might help quicken a school's response. But they are unlikely to prevent shooters, said Johnson Jr. of Johns Hopkins.

    He added that there is no research into the effectiveness of these AI technologies.

    Classroom ‘surveillance zone'

    There are also ethical concerns.

    "Kids need to be in schools that treat them like students, instead of suspects," said Johnson Jr.

    He and other experts worry that surveillance solutions to school violence create a hostile environment. He said it could be especially negative for Black students and students from other overpoliced communities.

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by Reuters.


    Words in This Story

    advanced — adj. beyond the basic level

    taser — n. —used for a gun that fires electrified darts to immobilize a person

    lethal — adj. causing or able to cause death

    ethics — n. rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad

    relief — n. a pleasant and relaxed feeling that someone has when something unpleasant stops or does not happen

    robust — adj. strong and healthy

    detector — n. a device that can tell if a substance or object is present

    review — n. an act of carefully looking at or examining the quality or condition of something or someone

    consult — v. to go to for advice

    respond — n. to say or write something as an answer to a question or request