Schools Are Spending Big On Surveillance Technology. Is It Worth It?

Students at William Hackett Middle School pass through metal detectors on the first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Albany, N.Y.

Students at William Hackett Middle School pass through metal detectors on the first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Mike Groll/AP

After Parkland, schools are installing gunshot-detection systems typically used in cities like Oakland and Chicago. But the concrete benefits of the technology are dubious.

As other elementary schools across the country were preparing for the new school year by cleaning classrooms and training teachers, Hermosa Elementary, in Artesia, New Mexico was installing a network of wireless microphones that could pick up the specific concussive audio signature of gunfire. Placed high in classrooms and hallways, the golf-ball-sized devices can alert authorities to the sound and location of gunshots, reportedly within 20 seconds of firing. They can also identify make and model of guns, and automatically lock doors and sound alarms throughout the campus.

They are a technological balm for a terrifying problem: In the wake of the Parkland shooting, and Sandy Hook before that, school districts across the nation are spending hundreds of thousands to outfit campuses with high-tech surveillance, crisis response, and police technologies. Playgrounds are cordoned off by biometric locks requiring face and iris scans, parking lots are scanned and license plates are recorded, gunshot-detection devices are embedded in cafeterias, human police wear body cameras, and autonomous robots patrol hallways to detect weapons.

Hermosa Elementary’s gunshot detection-system was installed by EAGL Technology, a New Mexico security company established in 2015. Outfitting a single school with EAGL’s system costs about $25,000, though the company charges up to $150,000 for installation in full-scale sporting arenas. (EAGL installed Hermosa’s system for free as a test.) Schools in Texas and Colorado have explored its system as well. The Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin reportedly plans to spend $384,000 in grant money installing it.

At a time when teachers are crowdfunding online to pay for school supplies, some worry that these security measures will come at the expense of salaries or instructional materials. “What shouldn’t happen is schools and districts be forced to make choices between providing quality education and providing for safe learning environments,” Stephanie Ly, president of the New Mexico chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told me. “State revenue for adding new security measures or technology shouldn’t come at the expense of our districts’ bottom lines, which includes opting for security technology at the expense of books, quality facilities, and fully staffed faculties. We oppose armed guards in our schools, and while we want secure facilities, we know that turning our classrooms and campuses into facilities more akin to jails than schools does not serve our students, their families, and our communities well.”

Perhaps more saliently, the enormous investments presented by these surveillance systems have dubious benefits. They typically have little oversight, and parents generally don’t know much about them beyond their promised ability to “protect” students. And while accelerating lockdown protocols can save lives, fully automating them is risky. The co-owner of EAGL Technology has admitted the possibility of a nearly unspeakable scenario: The devices could respond to gunfire and lock doors before students evacuate, trapping them inside classrooms with shooters.

Hermosa’s system, though licensed by EAGL Technology, was originally designed by engineers at the Department of Energy, building on the neighborhood-wide gunshot-detection tech police use in Chicago and Oakland, cities grappling with epidemic gun violence. In 2016, the Fresno School District voted to expand its use of Shotspotters, a similar external gunshot-detection system that uses microphones placed throughout neighborhoods. Fresno board members approved a $500,000 budget to cover 24 schools in the district.

In Oakland or Chicago, where gun violence is a daily tragedy, these devices can offer iterative benefits: They allow police to respond to gunfire faster, EMTs and other first responders to arrive sooner, and, theoretically, bring about an increase in conviction rates for gun crimes and, in the long run, a decrease in gun violence. But they only work in the event of a shooting, and the likelihood that any of the schools that have signed expensive, multi-year contracts with security companies will actually make use of the technology they’ve licensed is, statistically, very, very low.

Other school-surveillance tech is less reactive and more preventative, less like an emergency-response system and more like airport security. In March, the Randolph Central School District in New York announced plans for cameras enabled with license-plate-reading technologies, part of its planned $500,000 security upgrade. The cameras would scan visitors’ license plates, then match them to police databases of stolen vehicles and active warrants. And in June, the Lockport City School District in New York allotted $95,000 annually in state grant money for a district-wide facial-recognition system. Provided by Ontario-based biometrics company SN Technologies, the proposed system would scan visitors’ faces, comparing them against criminal databases and alerting police if there’s a match. Similar proposals have the go-ahead in New Jersey, Wyoming, and Arkansas, where Magnolia School District officials approved nearly $300,000 for the technology.

The ACLU’s New York chapter raised concerns in an open letter with the New York State Department of Education, noting the district has failed to provide strict rules about data retention or a plan for auditing the effectiveness of the technology. Then there’s also the fact that many school shooters are first-time offenders who would presumably evade automated screening and database matching. Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, for example, had years of mental-health warnings, but he hadn’t been placed in an active-warrant database. The same is true of the Columbine and Parkland shooters. It’s not clear how database checks would prevent school shootings when shooters’ first criminal act is the shooting itself. Some of the schools piloting the software can update or customize databases—for expelled students, for example—but what exactly should get a person placed on such a list, when they haven’t been tried or convicted of anything?

Greg Bronson, a Lockport native and president of the local teachers’ union, the Lockport Education Association, has taught in the school district for 30 years. He says that while he and other union members are aware of the controversy surrounding the technology, the LEA hasn’t taken an official stance for or against it. Their first priority remains student safety. “We want to teach in a secure and a worry-free environment,” he told me. “And our members want to come home safely every night to their children and their families.” Bronson said teachers are less concerned with advanced tech than they are with repairing already-existing cameras to catch the day-to-day incidents: fights, tardiness, something going missing from the locker room.

At any rate, Bronson said, students themselves seem unperturbed by the philosophical questions. Rather than seeing surveillance technology broadly or face recognition specifically as invasive or disruptive to the learning environment, he has noticed the opposite: Students accept the presence of the tech without question.

“As our kids get older they’ve been through all that before,” he says, referring to a number of emergency drills mandated by the state. Lockport students run school-shooting drills almost monthly. Bronson hypothesizes that, soon enough, face recognition and other technologies will just become part of the architecture of the modern school day much the same as the drills. “If anything,” he said, “the bigger issue is getting them to take it seriously because they have become so routine.”

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