News4 I-Team

Schools using AI to prevent gun violence

I-Team gets inside look at how artificial intelligence is being implemented in some schools

NBC Universal, Inc.

As students return to the classroom around the D.C. region this year, safety is top of mind.

“As a principal, the first thing you think of every day is keeping the students safe. And the parents, when they send the students to school, they trust that you and the staff will keep everyone safe every day,” said Bull Run Middle School Principal Matthew Phythian.

He makes it a point to greet every one of his students each morning at the Prince William County, Virginia, school. But this year, something else will also be watching.

"It definitely gives me a peace of mind," he said.

It's a new weapons detection system called Evolv that uses sensors and artificial intelligence to detect potentially dangerous weapons coming through the front door. The school district said the safety screening technology is going in all Prince William County middle and high schools at a cost of $10.7 million over the next four years.

"It's looking at objects that may be threatening but ignoring other everyday metallic items. And so what it's not picking up, is my keys, for example, or my cellphone," said Jill Lemond, the director of education for Evolv.  

More than 600 schools around the country already use Evolv, according to the company. Lemond told the News4 I-Team it's able to scan close to 2,000 people an hour through a single lane. Unlike regular metal detectors, the AI can provide a specific location, noted with a red box.

"Those individuals who do have an alert are going to go to a secondary search area where someone who's been well trained is going to look in a very particular spot for that item," Lemond said.

“I was very surprised,” said eight grader Olivia McBride about her school deciding to go high tech. "It just adds a different level of security that can help teachers because they have so much going on."

But she said she welcomes anything that can make school a safer place, especially when it comes to gun violence.

"I feel like a lot of people think, ‘Oh, that'll never happen to us,’ and then one day it does and you just are so surprised by it," she said.

Principal Phythian said no guns have been found at Bull Run, but there have been times when knives were discovered on students in the past. PWCS told the I-Team 71 weapons were found in county schools in the 2021 to 2022 school year. That number dropped to 61 last year. Phythian hopes the new screening technology will be a deterrent to make any student think twice before making a bad decision.

In Maryland, Charles County is the first school district in the state to use AI to detect guns and potential threats. Charles County Public Schools has seen an increase in weapons found over the past two school years, jumping 25% from 70 to 88.

"We have to prepare for everything. We have to be right all the time," said Jason Stoddard, the director of school safety and security for the county.

The Omnilert Gun Detect software will monitor already-existing external cameras throughout campuses to identify not only weapons but physical behavior or movements consistent with possible violence.

"It is constantly scanning our exterior cameras for the presence of people and then it looks for a weapon. And then it looks for what they're doing," said Stoddard.

Once a potential threat is found, an alert is sent.

"We get an automatic notification through an electronic means, through a text message or an app on our phone. And then we get to see the video and the pictures of what's going on to determine whether we would call the police or not," Stoddard said.

The cost of the system is $207,000 according to the school district. A grant through the Maryland Center for School Safety’s Grant Funding Program will cover the first two years. CCPS also installed panic buttons in every main office this year that staff can use in case of any emergencies.

And while Stoddard said this type of technology plays a part in keeping everyone safe, he still thinks building those open relationships between students and faculty is key.

"Our kids can't learn if they don't feel safe. Our staff's not going to teach if they don't feel safe," said Stoddard.

In Prince William County, the new AI screening system is being rolled out to all middle and high schools with training underway.

"I hope that it helps the students first and foremost feel comfortable, because we want them to come in these doors into a learning environment, into a social environment," physical education teacher Amy Wetherbee said.

Principal Phythian doesn’t think the new tool will take away from the positive mood around his hallways.

"Our staff will still greet the students with smiles and high fives,” he said.

And while AI can sometimes raise privacy concerns, he said he hasn't heard any complaints from parents.

"I think there'll be an initial transition getting used to the system and have students familiar with what to do," Phythian said.

Reported by Tracee Wilkins, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

Contact Us