The Baltimore City school system is considering purchasing a $1.2 million security system to screen for weapons in all of its high schools, but the proposal is already drawing criticism from school board members, parents and teachers.

The new system, called Evolv Express, could be used to scan high school students as they walk through the school doors, replacing metal detectors that were put in place last spring after a gun was found inside Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, or Mervo. A student was also fatally shot outside the school at the start of the school year.

Company representatives declined to be interviewed, but according to its website, Evolv uses “safe, ultra-low frequency, electromagnetic fields and advanced sensors” to scan individuals as they walk between two pillars that look similar to a metal detector, but aren’t. The company then uses artificial intelligence to analyze the scans, picking up weapons it detects.

Installed in school systems in Massachusetts and Texas, the company claims that its technology is able to allow hundreds of students to walk into school quickly through the scans so that students aren’t waiting in long lines to pass through metal detectors in the morning.

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School board members declined to vote last month on whether to transfer funds to pay for the new system, saying they wanted more details about how it worked and what research was available to support the new approach. And a teacher, Nathan Ferrell, questioned the proposal at the school board meeting where it was discussed.

The company has marketed its technology as a way to reduce the chances of deadly school shootings, but questions are being raised about whether the new technology would be an invasion of student privacy and contribute to students feeling they aren’t entering a welcoming environment.

“This is something we are still investigating and researching. … It is an upgrade to the metal detectors,” said Lynette Washington, the school system’s chief operating officer, at a recent school board meeting. “We started piloting at Mervo” this summer, she said, adding that it was installed for four days and tested out by school staff and students.

She told the board that the “touchless security screening technology” is used to detect a threat, whether it is a gun or a knife. A wireless tablet then warns a security guard at the school that a person who is entering the building has a weapon.

Representatives of the city school administration declined to discuss the proposal outside of the comments that were made at the school board meeting, which was only conducted online.

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If the proposal is approved by the school board, the system would use the money to pay for 53 scanning devices at 33 high schools, indicating that more than one device would be put in a school. The school system intends to install some of the devices early next year.

Washington said the school system has reached out to others currently using the devices to see what issues they have encountered, what training staff will need and whether they are working well.

“I am a little concerned — how we have thought through the implementation,” said board member Robert Salley, adding that he was concerned about how families would feel about the new devices and how it might affect student morale. ”There are so many concerns I cannot begin to express them in this setting.”

Other school board members said they wanted more community involvement in the decision making. “When we see the words ‘weapons protection system’ in a school system like Baltimore City that is predominately Black and brown, alarms go off for folks,” said board member Ateira Griffin. “Community engagement, school engagement, board engagement has not happened. That is not okay.

Mark Jews, a parent of a Baltimore City school student, said he would favor the installation of the devices after the community has been asked to comment.

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“I think they are unfortunately necessary for the times where we are,” he said, but added that immediate action needs to be taken to help young people feel safe as they are going to and coming from school. Many students arm themselves with guns and knives, he said, because they feel they need to protect themselves on city streets that they take to school.

“We have to get to the crux of the problem,” he said.

The parent of a student at Garrett Heights Elementary, Brian Furr, doesn’t want to see the Evolv system — or metal detectors — in high schools when his children attend. “It is time-consuming and it conditions you to feel as though you are being set up to go to prison,” he said.

Furr said the school system should spend the money instead on helping to create schools where students have self-esteem and the confidence to believe they have a future, and where they don’t see themselves as the type of person who would carry a gun to school.

“I want them to think they are going into a loving environment, a school,” Furr said.

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Some newly published research suggests there is a link between how students feel in school and educational outcomes.

“The research suggests that there are unintended consequences,” said Odis Johnson, a Johns Hopkins School of Education researcher who recently published a study looking at the effects of surveillance on students.

“Our research suggests that the more surveillance the school uses, the more they may feel like suspects rather than students,” Johnson said. The study analyzed data on approximately 6,000 students across the United States and found that students at schools with detection devices are more likely to have lower math achievement, more in-school suspensions and are less likely to go to college.

Johnson recognizes the school system’s need to keep children safe, however, and said in the long run the answer would be to reduce the number of guns on the streets.

liz.bowie@thebaltimorebanner.com

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