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Districts Turn to AI to Address School Security Needs

Camera in a classroom

In light of the ongoing safety and security concerns at schools across the country, some Texas districts are turning to AI to bolster their security efforts.

In Waco ISD, which educates approximately 14,000 students, metal detectors equipped with AI technology help identify potentially dangerous objects as students walk through the door. The devices, created by Evolv Technologies, use screens monitored by staff to improve accuracy in identifying potential items of concern.

“We can get 900 kids through in 45 minutes, versus the old-style metal detectors, where it would hit on cell phones, it would hit on keys, it would hit on pens,” said Jerry Allen, Waco ISD’s chief technology officer. “The Evolv system only hits on people who have those types of items, like baseball bats or things shaped like a barrel. We pull those people over to the side and search.”

The district, which has been using the Evolv system since May 2023, relies on a single point of entry, along with clear backpacks, to help ease the flow of traffic and get students to class on time.

AI security technology is also in use at Liberty Hill ISD, where a video system called SparkCognition monitors activity at the district’s high school. The system, which has been in place at the district since April 2023, identifies potential hazards, including weapons, open doors, injured individuals, and intruders.

“The program looks at 200 cameras and interprets that data for me in real time,” says Travis Motal, chief of schools for Liberty Hill ISD. “It sends me an alert saying, I think you probably need to go check this out.”

Over the past year, the SparkCognition technology has helped Liberty Hill ISD both create a sense of security and identify potential areas of concern before problems can arise.

“If I don’t fix small things, they become big things,” says Motal. “You’re able to stop a fight before it happens or drug use, instead of reacting after somebody reports it the next day.”

Working Through Challenges

In Waco ISD, logistical challenges like staffing proved to be one of the biggest hurdles to implementing the new AI-driven security system. Though the Evolv system helps students get to their classrooms faster, the district found that getting the most out of the new technology required rearranging staffing schedules.

“It does require more manpower because instead of having one person at the door, now you’ve got four people,” said Allen. Staff members greet students as they enter the school, ask for ID cards, pull aside students who have been identified by the system, and search backpacks as needed.

Despite the additional support needed, the district has been able to manage schedules through rearranging duty stations, noted Allen.

“Usually you would have multiple people in the cafeteria in the morning, but it does make you feel ok with having less of a presence in the cafeteria when you know there are no weapons in the building,” he said.

In Liberty Hill ISD, the biggest hurdle in implementing a new security program was getting approvals and configuring a customized system. Liberty Hill was the first district to partner with SparkCognition, which meant there were technical and logistical challenges to work through.

“We spent four or five months just talking about what the system could do, what the school could do, what do we need,” said Motal. “It took us a month to get our technology working online.”

For districts pursuing a similar AI-monitored video system, Motal estimates that it would take roughly four to six months to get the program up and running.

“Explaining to your board and community will be key in getting the approvals needed for implementation,” said Motal, “but the technology piece is quicker than it used to be.”

The Price of Security

Though AI security systems come with a hefty price tag, Waco ISD was able to make use of state grant funds to purchase the Evolv detectors, which are currently installed at two of the district’s middle schools and both high schools.

“We’ll be able to pay through 2025, and then we’re hoping the state comes through with safety money. If it doesn’t, we’ll plan accordingly,” said Allen. “Budgets are tough right now but not so tough that we’re going to put our students at risk.”

Liberty Hill ISD began planning for more robust security measures after the Uvalde school shooting in May 2022. Around that time, SparkCognition reached out to the district with the opportunity to start a pilot program for its school safety technology, at no cost to the district for the first year.

Motal estimates that the district will spend $200,000 to $300,000 on the system over the next year, with approximately $100,000 of that going toward initial startup fees. He says the cost is worth it given the value that the system brings.  

“If I have 200-plus security cameras at the high school, I could hire a person who makes $30,000 to $60,000 dollars to sit there and watch all the cameras all the time, but one person can’t watch 200 cameras at one time, so how many people would I need?” explains Motal. “If you start scaling up costs, you start to realize pretty quickly that the cost it would take for me to have that many people monitoring is more, if not the same, as it’s going to cost for me to partner with this company.”

Adding Layers

Brian Clason, program manager of training and education for the Texas School Safety Center says that AI-driven security systems are promising but still far from perfect.

“It’s important to recognize that AI systems aren’t foolproof. The danger is in overrelying on them,” says Clason. “It’s always going to come back to humans needing to be the failsafe.”

In Liberty Hill ISD, Motal emphasized that the SparkCognition system is only one part of a larger security structure for the district.

“We look at safety and security as layers. This is an outer layer that can tell me our potential threats or concerns before they come into the building or while they’re in the hallways,” said Motal. “The next layer is – how are we actually communicating that out?”

Waco ISD would like to eventually move to a system like SparkCognition, but for now, they’re pleased with how the Evolv system has worked for their district. 

“Our parents have been so welcoming and excited about how much we’re spending on safety and security,” said Allen. “When polling students and faculty, they were so relieved we had done this. The kids especially felt better about going to school.”

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Leslie Trahan
Content Strategy Manager

Leslie Trahan is the content strategy manager for TASB.