US schools are deploying a new AI-based technology to prevent more shootings

In March, a student at Oak Hill High School in West Virginia took to Instagram, threatening a school shooting, specifically calling out administrators and students. What happened next went quickly: Law enforcement deemed the threat credible, traced the IP address from which the threats were made, and the student was apprehended within hours. The timing of the threat coincidentally lined up with the school’s installation of Evolv Technology’s (EVLV) Evolv Express, a sensor platform that uses AI to detect guns and other weapons.

Still, Fayette County superintendent Gary Hough and Oak Hill High principal Katie Hayes had a difficult decision to make — could they bring students back to school the next day and, if they did, what would that look like? Parents and students were frightened, but ultimately they decided to bring students back to campus the following day, a Monday.

“A real key element for us this time was having Evolv in place because parents had just been exposed to the technology shortly before,” Hough told Yahoo Finance. “We also asked for additional police presence that day and most of my staff was on-campus that morning, but it was so nice having that additional security.”

Hayes agrees.

“We did soft implementation for a week, then the grand opening the following week, and right after that, the threats came in,” she said. “The fact our police officers got to that person’s house that night was really impressive, but we also had Evolv the next day… You can’t tell parents that it’s taken care of, because they’re freaked out. But for them to know we had a system like Evolv’s there, that meant a lot to parents.”

After the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, discourse about gun violence in the U.S. has gained new momentum. Other mass shootings have also taken place in recent weeks — from Buffalo, N.Y. to Tulsa, Okla. — and though President Biden said he plans to take action, the barriers to sweeping gun reform are high. However, the problem’s scope is wide, and the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recently revealed that gun violence is the leading cause of death among young people in the U.S. Further, 34,000 students were exposed to gun violence last year. So, where does that leave a school?

Tech is certainly a place where schools have the opportunity to double down. For its part, Evolv’s systems are set up to monitor entrances without stopping the flow of people into and out of a space, the company’s CEO, Peter George, told Yahoo Finance. When a weapon is detected, the teachers or school police officers who are operating the system are notified, and then the student can be apprehended.

“The only prevailing technology today is a metal detector,” he said. “So you have to take out your metal — your iPhone, your keys — to prove you don’t have a weapon. Now, most people don’t carry weapons, but we have to treat everyone like they do.”

Some experts believe that there’s a danger of putting too much emphasis on technological responses and caution against creating “security theater,” according to National School Safety and Security Services President Kenneth Trump.

“There’s a role for security hardware and technology, but any type of technology is only as good as the weakest human link behind it,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“These issues are more complex than what they look like, and there’s no quick fix,” he added. “We need to invest more time in people, custodians, administrators, everyone who plays a role in school security.”

That said, Evolv’s tech may have already helped prevent an incident in another school. In May, at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte, N.C., Evolv’s systems prevented a student from bringing a loaded weapon into the school.

Katie Hayes, principal of Oak Hill High School in West Virginia. Photo provided by Hayes.

Previously, Oak Hill and other Fayette County schools had metal detectors, which both Hayes and Hough say prevented students from getting to class on time. About 1,100 students are enrolled at Oak Hill High, which is the largest school in the district. The school — which has a staff of 100, including about 64 teachers — has a predominantly white student population that’s socioeconomically diverse, Hayes said.

“We’re a mixed bag,” she said. “We have very wealthy students, we have students who live in poverty. We also have a huge foster student population. So, we’re truly diverse in socioeconomic status.”

The pandemic has kept kids out of classrooms for years, so it’s never been more important for students to get to class before the bell, said Hayes.

“Think about our system as an open platform,” said George. “There’s a sensor platform you walk through, but there’s no roof on it. You can get close to 4,000 people an hour through this thing when you walk through. In fact, when most people walk through, they don’t know they’re getting screened at all.”

Fayette County is the first-ever recipient of GiveEvolv, a program geared towards donating and installing the company’s screening systems to public schools across the U.S.

A Texas Department of Public Safety officer stands in front of crosses with the names of victims of a school shooting, at a memorial outside Robb Elementary school, two days after a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults, in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 26, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A Texas Department of Public Safety officer stands in front of crosses with the names of victims of a school shooting, at a memorial outside Robb Elementary school, two days after a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults, in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 26, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Walking right through

Evolv’s systems are AI-based and, unlike traditional metal detectors, can identify dangerous objects as groups of people are walking through. Evolv’s systems are used not only in schools, but in hospitals, schools, stadiums, houses of worship, and theme parks. The company’s customers include Six Flags, L.L. Bean, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“You can walk through without breaking stride into a venue,” said George. “It’s completely game-changing and a completely different experience than anyone has ever been able to create before. So, how we do it is that there’s a sensor platform you walk through. We create magnetic field around the platform, and we’ve written the signatures for all the weapons out there, every gun that exists, including large tactical knives and bombs. So as you’re walking through, the platform knows what to look for and goes off.”

An image of Evolv Express, provided by the company.

An image of Evolv Express, provided by the company.

In 2021, Evolv went public in a $1.7 billion SPAC deal, and the company’s investors have included Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates, Lux Capital, and General Catalyst. The company’s stock is down more than 60% over the last 12 months, but had a strong showing in Q1 2022, as Evolv Express subscriptions increased 227% year-over-year. Ultimately, Evolv’s betting long-term that security tech everywhere needs an upgrade.

“We’ve completely flipped the model, and use technology to identify a threat amongst your personal belongings,” said George. “Your security posture goes up, and it’s way better security.”

For Oak Hill High and Fayette County, that added security has made a difference, they say.

“When you sit back, and an incident occurs, you’re so thankful that you have this technology in place,” said Hough.

Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks.

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