‘Reduces anxiety’: What to know about security screeners that may be coming to some Virginia schools

After recent conversations with her husband, Alexis Hacketta, a Prince William County, Virginia, parent noticed she disagrees with his perspective on a new security measure under consideration in the state’s second-largest school district.

Days after a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher in Newport News, Prince William County Superintendent LaTanya McDade announced the county was considering high-tech weapon detectors in middle and high schools.

When she was in middle school, the technology wasn’t considered necessary, but Hackett considered why the tech might be now.

She recognized the climate has changed, and expressed support for the idea only if it added a layer of protection for her middle school-aged daughter.

Her husband, meanwhile, calls the new tech an unnecessary precaution. Some high schoolers may keep weapons in their cars, he said. He isn’t sold on how much the presence of the detectors will deter crime.

Many parents across the county are having the same conversations, as McDade has launched a series of community sessions aimed at soliciting feedback on the security measure. Some want to see more data on crime and weapons before a decision is made. Others say it’s an essential barrier in keeping schools safe.

Hackett said her daughter often talks about her school’s lockdown drills.

“She can tell me the difference between a secure shelter-in-place and a lockdown. In her mind, these are norms to her,” Hackett said. “While she’s not scared of anything at school, it’s something that she knows as a precaution based off those things that happen in her time.”

A multi-million dollar investment

If the board moves forward with the plan to use the scanners, Prince William County would be following the lead of Manassas City Public Schools, which recently voted to install security lanes.

The county is considering the Evolv Express detectors, which would allow for quick and efficient screening at school entrances, because things like phones don’t need to be removed.

It would be a $10 to $15 million investment, school board chairman Babur Lateef said. The school system may ask the county’s Board of Supervisors to help fund the initiative, he said.

Anil Chitkara, Evolv Technology’s founder and chief growth officer, said the technology is in over 200 schools across the country. The screeners use both advanced sensors and artificial intelligence software to detect things like guns, knives and other weapons.

When people walk through the sensors, he said, the technology works to identify characteristics of things that may seem like weapons. If something presenting like a weapon is detected, an alert goes to the on-site security team, via a tablet.

Students don’t have to remove things from their pockets or backpacks, though Lateef said Chromebook laptops may have to be removed, since there’s a chance the hinges may appear like a weapon.

“It reduces anxiety among teachers, administrators, students, parents, and the community that there might be an event inside the school,” Chitkara said. “Students, given the events today, are very anxious about guns and violence in their schools. What the Express system is doing is allowing them to enter very efficiently into a safer environment.”

The technology, which Chitkara said is used at some sports and entertainment venues, is sold on a subscription basis. It’s a weapons detector rather than a metal detector, he said, and does have limitations. For one, it’s not designed to detect alcohol.

“Nothing is a 100% solution,” Chitkara said. “And so the Evolv system has a set of weapons that it’s very good at detecting. But it’s not every single weapon out there.”

‘These things are working’

When students returned to in-person classes after the pandemic, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina noticed an uptick of weapons, particularly guns, being brought to school.

Brian Schultz, the county’s chief operations officer, said installing metal detectors would take too long to screen students as they entered schools. So, the county spent $15 million for the Evolv scanners at middle and high schools that were put in place at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

“There’s some hesitation and then feedback that we don’t want to make our schools like prisons, and nobody wants that,” Schultz said. “But we do want our schools safe.”

Schultz said he was also struck by how safe some staff members felt after the scanners were installed.

At this time last year, Schultz said, the school system found 24 weapons in its schools. As of the end of January, it reported two.

“The thing that we’ll never know through this is how many incidents did we stop,” he said. “And how many incidents and or lives did we save? And we don’t even know it, because these things are working and they’re working well.”

The school district also has cameras and lockdown protocols, among other safety measures in place, Schultz said. The scanners add a layer of protection.

“I rest a little bit easier knowing that we have these as a deterrent in our schools,” he said. “We know they work. We found weapons on students with them.”

‘The root cause’

Nichole Campbell, another Prince William parent, said before a decision is made, the county should provide data to explain why the scanners are needed.

During a November school board meeting, Prince William County police Chief Peter Newsham said 12 weapons had been recovered between the start of the school year and October 2022.

Lateef, the school board chair, pointed to recent incidents, including one at C.D. Hylton High School, where a gun accidentally went off last year. At Freedom High School earlier this school year, a student brought a gun to school, prompting an hours-long lockdown.

“We’re making it seem like it’s super, super dangerous,” Campbell said. “I’d like to find out what the root cause of the danger is in the school before putting up extra security.”

Parent Shantell Rock, who said she’s running for a seat on the county school board, has heard conflicting views on the technology from community members.

Some “feel like it’s gonna give (students) the prison mindset,” Rock said.

On the other hand, “for the parents, we want that safety measure, we want to feel safe, and we want our kids to be safe,” Rock said.

In a statement, the Prince William Education Association said, “PWEA leadership supports measures to ensure students and staff are as safe as possible in our schools. We look forward to hearing more about the proposed measures, including cost, staffing requirements, and the anticipated quantifiable improvement the measures will have on school safety.”

If the county moves forward with the screeners, they’d likely be in place before the start of the next school year, Lateef said.

Alexandria City Public Schools is also considering a pilot program for a similar security system, though a vendor hasn’t been selected for the potential initiative, according to Alicia Hart, the school system’s chief of facilities and operations.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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