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, the 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.
School-security companies are thriving in the era of mass shootings.
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, allow 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, multiyear 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 the 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.