As students return to class this year in the Washington region, safety is top priority.
As a principal, the first thing you think about every day is keeping students safe. And parents, when sending students to school, trust that you and the staff will keep everyone safe every day, Bull Run Middle School principal Matthew Phythian said.
He makes a point of greeting all of his students every morning at the school in Prince William County, Virginia. But this year there will also be something else to watch.
“It definitely gives me peace of mind,” she said.
It’s a new weapon detection system called Evolv that uses sensors and artificial intelligence to detect potentially dangerous weapons entering the front door. The school district said the safety screening technology will be used in all middle and high schools in Prince William County at a cost of $10.7 million over the next four years.
“It looks at objects that might be threatening but it ignores other everyday metal objects. And so what it doesn’t detect is my keys, for example, or my cell phone,” said Jill Lemond, director of education for Evolv.
According to the company, more than 600 schools across the country are already using Evolv. Lemond told the I-Team News4 that it is capable of scanning nearly 2,000 people an hour through a single lane. Unlike regular metal detectors, AI can provide a specific location, marked with a red box.
“Individuals who receive an alert will go to a secondary search area where someone who has been well trained will search for that object in a very particular spot,” Lemond said.
I was very surprised, said eight-grade Olivia McBride, of her school’s decision to go high-tech. “It just adds a different layer of security that can help teachers because they have so much going on.”
But he said he welcomes anything that can make the school a safer place, especially when it comes to gun violence.
“I feel like a lot of people think, Oh, this is never going to happen to us, and then one day it happens and you’re so surprised,” she said.
Principal Phythian said no firearms were found at Bull Run, but there have been times when knives have been discovered on students in the past. PWCS told the I-Team that 71 guns were found in county schools in the 2021-2022 school year. That number dropped to 61 last year. Phythian hopes the new screening technology will be a deterrent to making students think twice before making a bad decision.
In Maryland, Charles County is the first school district in the state to use AI to detect weapons and potential threats. Charles County public schools have seen an increase in guns found in the past two school years, up 25 percent from 70 to 88.
“We have to prepare for everything. We have to be right all the time,” said Jason Stoddard, the county’s director of school safety.
Omnilert Gun Detect software will monitor existing outdoor cameras on campuses to identify not only weapons but also physical behavior or movement consistent with possible violence.
“It’s constantly scanning our outdoor cameras for people and then looking for a weapon. And then looking for what they’re up to,” Stoddard said.
Once a potential threat is detected, an alert is sent.
“We get an automatic notification through electronic means, either through a text message or an app on our phone. And then we can see the video and pictures of what’s going on to determine whether or not to call the police,” Stoddard said.
The cost of the system is $207,000 according to the school district. A grant through the Maryland Center for School Safety Grant Funding Program will cover the first two years. This year, CCPS also installed panic buttons in each main office for staff to use in the event of an emergency.
And while Stoddard says this type of technology plays a role in keeping everyone safe, he continues to believe that building open relationships between students and faculty is critical.
“Our children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Our staff won’t teach if they don’t feel safe,” Stoddard said.
In Prince William County, the new AI-powered screening system has been rolled out to all middle and high schools with ongoing training.
“I hope this helps students feel comfortable in the first place, because we want them to walk through these doors into a learning environment, a social environment,” said physical education teacher Amy Wetherbee.
Principal Phythian doesn’t think the new tool will detract from the positive vibe in his hallways.
“Our staff will still greet students with smiles and high-fives,” he said.
And while AI can sometimes raise privacy concerns, she said she hasn’t heard any complaints from parents.
“I think there will be an initial transition of getting used to the system and getting students familiar with what to do,” Phythian said.
Reported by Tracee Wilkins, produced by Rick Yarborough and shot and edited by Steve Jones.
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