Weapon detection system used in some area schools flawed, experts say

Atlanta and DeKalb County school systems among newest users
Students walk through security at Maynard Jackson High School in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Atlanta Public Schools has implemented a new weapons detection system called Evolv in its middle and high schools. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Students walk through security at Maynard Jackson High School in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Atlanta Public Schools has implemented a new weapons detection system called Evolv in its middle and high schools. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote from Evolv’s website.

On a brisk January morning, students at Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School passed through a brand-new set of scanners at the school’s entrance.

The system was created by Evolv, and Atlanta Public Schools had agreed on a one-year, $2.6 million contract to install it in its middle and high schools. DeKalb’s school system last month agreed to a four-year, $8 million contract with Evolv.

Evolv offers itself as an advanced and convenient alternative to metal detectors. According to the company, users just walk between two screen-like towers, and the system uses electromagnetic fields and artificial intelligence to detect weapons. Marketing materials boast that passersby won’t have to unpack their bags, remove their shoes or go through pat-downs.

Despite Evolv’s promises, it’s raised concerns among security and surveillance experts after some schools had issues with the system. The company has also been embroiled in controversies that raise questions about the system’s reliability, and the company’s ethics.

Evolv responded to requests for comment by referring to a page on its website that insists its technology is effective at detecting weapons. The weblink says it is frequently updating the system.

APS said while no system is foolproof, they have implemented measures to ensure school safety with the system. DeKalb did not respond to requests for comment.

Bold claims, imperfect deliveries

Evolv is used in multiple sports venues nationwide, including Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The company said after its deal with APS, about 200 schools nationwide use the system.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the system created issues last fall when it falsely identified school-issued laptops as weapons, the Charlotte Observer reported. In a YouTube video from one high school, a school administrator instructs students to remove their laptops and hold them over their heads in order to pass through the scanner. The video also advises students that water bottles, umbrellas, and binders containing metal can trigger the scanner.

In New York, several news outlets reported the Utica City School District phased out the system, which cost $3 million, in November 2022 after discovering it struggled to detect knives.

Conor Healy — the director of government research at IPVM, a publication dedicated to researching and discussing security and surveillance technology — said Evolv has made bold claims that don’t often reflect reality.

“Its CEO has claimed multiple times on news networks and in public that the system can recognize all weapons, that it recognizes all guns, all bombs, all large tactical knives,” Healy said in an interview. “That is not true, and Evolv knows that is not true.”

Ken Trump — a security expert and president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm specializing in school safety — said Evolv markets itself as more developed than it is, and will rely on errors in the schools it’s installed in to advance its technology.

“You’re coming in at ground level with limitations in what you program,” Trump said. “(Evolv) is going to get better, but it’s going to get better as we learn with errors in your schools.”

The company concedes its equipment has not spotted some knives and struggles to detect some materials, which include plastic, lead, copper and aluminum.

“Prohibited items, including weapons, have been known to get through metal detectors and other weapons screening technologies,” Evolv said on its website. “No technology is 100% perfect. Therefore, a layered approach that includes people, process and technology is used to help mitigate risk.”

Atlanta officials said they are confident in the system.

“While no system is 100 percent foolproof, the installation of the Evolv systems on our middle and high school campuses and in our athletic facilities has served as an aid and a deterrent in our safety protocols,” APS spokesman Seth Coleman said in a statement.

Dodging accountability?

Evolv, though, has avoided and obstructed industry watchdogs, some security experts say.

Healy said IPVM tried to review the system but was blocked by the company.

“Screening technologies should be tested in live, real-world scenarios by security experts who have experience securing venues and the people in them,” Evolv said on its website. “Not in labs by people without real-world, weapons detection experience.”

Evolv allowed the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi to test and review the system. The center had given Evolv a 2.84 rating out of a maximum of 3, and said many types of guns were detected 100%.

However, IPVM obtained copies of the report and emails between Evolv and the center through an open records request and discovered a report that hadn’t been released gave the system much poorer ratings. The emails also revealed Evolv edited the report prior to its publication, and deleted sections detailing the system’s poor performance with knives.

Evolv says claims it manipulated reports to make the technology appear more effective are “misleading,” without elaborating.

Security experts understand the pressure schools face in protecting students, educators and workers. But they caution these detection systems are flawed.

“In some cases, it can just be security theater. It creates a perception, an emotional security blanket largely for parents, to say, ‘We’ve heightened security and schools are safer,” Trump said.