Prince William Co. School Board chair says support strong for high-tech weapons detection system

If you had asked Prince William County, Virginia, School Board Chairman Babur Lateef five years ago whether he supported weapons detectors in schools, he would have said no.

“I’ve always been resistant to bringing in weapons detection systems,” Lateef told WTOP. “I’ve always felt this continued to be society’s failures.”

But, he has changed his mind, and supports the county trying out the high-tech Evolv Express detectors, with the goal of installing them at all of Prince William County’s middle and high schools.

The Evolv Express system utilizes metal detection and artificial intelligence. The county would be provided with several units to install in schools, to gather feedback from students, staff, and parents.

If they prove successful, Lateef estimates it would cost $10 to $15 million to purchase detectors for all the county’s middle and high schools.

He said school systems are entrusted to keep children safe, but the challenges are daunting.

Citing prevalence of guns, and lack of mental health resources, Lateef said schools have invested in safety and wellness, with school resource officers, psychologists and nurses: “We’re not funded at a level to do any of that particularly well.”

For the first time, the Prince William County school system set aside funds to hire at least one uniformed security officer at each of the county’s schools, including all 63 elementary schools.

“We continue to be, as schools, relied upon as either the last resort, or somehow the solution to some of these really challenging problems,” Lateef said.

How the detectors work

Now, in 2023, amid an alarming number of mass shootings, and a shooting in Newport News where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher with a gun he brought to school, Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade informed families that Virginia’s second-largest school system is considering a high-tech weapons-detection system.

Lateef said typical step-through metal detectors sound an alert when detecting anything metal: “Whether it’s keys, a phone, or your ID badge.”

However, the Evolv Express detection system uses both metal detectors and artificial intelligence, to detect only items that appear dangerous: “For example, a gun, a knife, or something that looks like it could be a bomb.”

“You can walk through with your backpack, and the machine has the ability to detect [dangerous] things,” said Lateef. “It doesn’t feel as invasive.”

He said the system “is very popular now in sports venues and concert venues.”

The systems would be installed at school entrances, with other doors locked.

“They’re mobile, by the way, so they can be rolled over to the football game entrance for the game in the evening,” Lateef said.

Lateef said a school employee would need to stand near the unit, in case an alarm sounds.

“We’ll have to make sure we have them staffed, so there will be some expense there,” Lateef said.

The school board has not yet voted on whether to move forward with the plan, including seeking funding from the county to purchase the system.

“I will tell you nine out of 10 of the folks I talk to are interested in seeing the schools upgrade their security with technologies like this,” Lateef said.

If the school board approves the plan, detectors could be in place as early as next school year.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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