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Can AI make Northeast Ohio schools safer from gun violence?

Camera on brick building with window.
Ida Lieskovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
Berkshire Local Schools uses AI technology to keep students safe from school shootings by accessing its existing surveillance cameras.

Twenty-five years after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado, gun violence continues to be a significant problem for schools. Now, some schools are turning to new technology as part of the effort to keep kids safe: AI.

At Berkshire Local Schools in Burton, elementary school kids are in the middle of their lunch as Superintendent John Stoddard points out the many security cameras watching everyone inside and outside the building.

“It’s an artificial intelligence that works inside the current surveillance cameras, and it is trained to identify a gun,” he told Ideastream Public Media. “It only needs 1/3 of the gun to be visible in order for it to be seen.”

Man in suit sits at desk and smiles.
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
Superintendent John Stoddard says that the AI is trained to spot guns.

Berkshire Schools has been using an AI system run by ZeroEyes for about two years. Stoddard said his was the first school to use ZeroEyes in Ohio, but he knows of about a dozen others that have adopted it now.

ZeroEyes was founded by a group of ex-Navy Seals in 2018 and is used in hundreds of buildings nationwide, most of them schools. Chief Revenue Officer and co-founder Sam Alaimo said the AI technology is invisible to students but incredibly fast.

“The whole point is within 3-5 seconds of the gun being seen in front of that camera you should get an alert,” he said. “So that’s not some teacher picking up the phone and saying, ‘I think something is happening here.’ Within 3-5 seconds law enforcement literally gets a picture, time stamp, location and weapons system of the shooter.”

When the AI flags a gun, a human will review the video to verify it at one of their monitoring centers. If it’s deemed a legitimate threat, they will notify local law enforcement and school personnel. If it’s not, the school’s superintendent may get a text that a fake gun was detected, like Stoddard once did.

“We detect guns every single week,” Alaimo said. “A lot of real ones, a lot of fake ones.”

ZeroEyes_Greenscreen_Schoolyard (2) (1).mp4

A simulation from ZeroEyes shows the AI detecting a weapon

ZeroEyes is just one of many companies in the ever-growing field of AI-based school security. Other companies say they can detect a variety of weapons, not just guns, or operate not in security cameras but rather metal detectors.

Some AI companies have courted controversy, like Evolv Technologies, which claims to be able to identify not only guns but also knives and explosives. The company is now being sued after a student successfully carried a knife into a school using Evolv’s software and went on to stab multiple students.

Unfortunately, aside from market data completed by those companies, there is no independent data available on how effective AI is at preventing gun deaths on school grounds. Alaimo argues there’s also no way to know how many lives may have already been saved by this type of software.

But critics say the technology is unproven. Odis Johnson, the executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that despite efforts to improve school security features, the problem of violence in schools persists.

“Every year in the last nine years we’ve had year over year increases in injury and death related to shootings in schools,” he said. “We keep adding to the number at a greater clip than the year before, so this is still happening even as we implement more technology. So that is probably the greatest proof I can offer that this isn’t working.”

Berkshire Local Schools front door gun advisory sign
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
The Berkshire Local Schools has the option of assigning the ZeroEyes AI to cameras like this one outside its doors.

Johnson thinks schools shouldn’t depend on AI to prevent a school shooting and may want to consider how the funds that pay for AI could be better spent, say on quality teachers or school counselors. He also suggested that the problem isn’t one that schools can solve alone.

“Nothing is going to keep kids safe within a context of gun proliferation and unchecked firearm regulation,” he said.

At Berkshire Schools, Superintendent John Stoddard said he feels confident the AI system is working. School officials, local law enforcement and the company regularly run simulations to test the software.

“ZeroEyes is not our safety plan alone, ZeroEyes is a layer to our safety plan,” Stoddard said.

The district paid for the software with a grant from the state and has it installed in about a third of its total security cameras. According to ZeroEyes, their software costs between $20 and $50 per camera stream per month.

Stoddard said the school also has many proactive measures in place, from social workers to partnerships with local mental health providers to anonymous tip lines where students and staff can report potential threats.

“We feel like if students have a sense of belonging, they have activities and they have things they’re interested in and they’re participating in things in the school and they make positive connections to the school, then they’re less likely to want to act out in inappropriate ways or commit acts of violence,” he said. 

But just in case, the AI is always watching.

Brick building stands alone.
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
Berkshire High School in Burton, Ohio.

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Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.