After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, an all-too-familiar question arose: how do we stop such a horror from happening again? A handful of companies said they had technology solutions that could help.
Among them was the drone company Axon, which promoted a remote Taser device to be deployed in schools. EdTech companies, including Impero Software, said their student monitoring services could signal warning signs and help prevent the next attack.
The companies are part of a thriving school safety industry, which grew to $3.1 billion in 2021 from just $2.7 million in 2017, according to market research firm Omdia. The Security Industry Association, which has more than 400 companies targeting preschools and elementary schools as members, has spent nearly $2 million on lobbying since 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org. Gun safety legislation passed by Congress last week included more than $300 million to strengthen the STOP School Violence Act, a federal grant program created after the Parkland shootings to fund school safety that has been approved by the industry group.
But gun control advocates, teachers’ groups and tech watchdogs are skeptical. Increased spending on high-tech security measures will help reduce gun violence in American schools and, in some cases, may even cause more harm to students.
“We all mourn the children lost in Uvalde, but some tech executives are chomping at the bit to make money from this tragedy,” said Rewan Al-Haddad, campaign manager at tech watchdog SumOfUs, adding that some of the solutions “are not “not only useless, they are actively harmful”.
Days after the Uvalde shooting, Arizona-based drone company Axon announced the development of a remote-controlled Taser drone system “as part of a long-term plan to stop mass shootings.”
The publicly traded company develops weapons products for military, law enforcement and civilians and has a market capitalization of $6.87 billion. He claims his tech has saved 266,000 lives, but his Taser drone announcement has created a maelstrom of backlash – lead nine people to resign from the Axon and company advisory board to put the project on hold indefinitely.
“In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to engage further with key stakeholders to fully explore the best way forward,” said Rick Smith, Founder and CEO of Axon. , in an online statement.
The use of drones in police forces has increased in recent years, with at least 1,172 police departments nationwide in possession of unmanned aerial devices. College campus police have used drones in the past to monitor crowds at large events and assess traffic accidents — but the new Axon drone represents a potential new frontier for armed devices that advocates have found concerning.
Surveillance technology is more common than drones on campus. The number of public schools deploying video surveillance systems increased from 20% in 1999 to 83% in 2017, according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Thousands of US school districts have contracts with tech companies to track student activity on school-provided computers, including monitoring what students search for and the websites they visit.
Impero Software, a company that launched its own technology directly in response to Uvalde’s news, promises to monitor K-12 students and flag warning signs such as looking for information on weapons .
Impero and similar companies use artificial intelligence to monitor all content that students enter into email accounts, chats, or official school documents around the clock. A student typing “how to kill myself” in a search on a school computer might, for example, immediately call the police to his home.
Yet despite the growing adoption of school safety tools across the United States, the number of mass school shootings has remained relatively constant over the past 30 years and has reached unprecedented levels in the United States. secondary schools over the past five years.
A study by researchers from the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins found that surveillance responses to gun violence in K-12 school systems “did not arrest the increasing frequency of its occurrence. , but instead have increased racial and ethnic disparities in multiple forms of discipline”. .
“I hear more and more that schools are starting to look like prisons, and that’s making young people feel more like suspects than like students,” said Odis Johnson, Johns Hopkins professor and co-author of the study.
The presence of surveillance technology increases schools’ ability to identify and discipline students for less serious offenses, Johnson explained, leading to more arrests and lawsuits against children, especially students of color. Non-white students are also proctored in greater numbers: Johnson’s research has shown that black students are four times more likely to attend a school with high or low proctoring.
“Educators have fought for safe and welcoming schools for decades, so of course we want common sense safety and security measures. But that’s a far cry from efforts to turn schools into armed fortresses or operate them like high-tech prisons,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It undermines the education of our children who need safe places to play and just exist – which is why we want fewer, not more, guns on campus.”
The Uvalde shooting, Weingarten said, was a tragic example of the limitations of these tools. The district had already been using a student social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel since 2019 and alerted parents just minutes after the shooting through an emergency response app called Raptor Technologies. Robb Elementary was what is known in the education industry as a “hardened” school, where digital and physical security technologies are deployed.
“While hardening makes security companies rich, it is not a panacea for the problem of school shootings,” he said. “We only have to look at elementary Robb at Uvalde, a hardened school, where officers waited over an hour to engage the shooter.”
Impero Software did not respond to a request for comment.
For many advocates of school safety and gun control, the debate around high-tech security obscures the issue at the heart of the scourge of school shootings: access to guns is the primary factor risk of such a tragedy.
“The only thing that protects children from mass shootings is making sure people don’t have access to weapons of mass destruction that can kill entire classes of children in one clip,” said Keri Rodrigues , president of the National Union of Parents, a non-profit organization. representing parents of children in schools.
“We can’t innovate to get out of this,” she added. “The saddest thing about it is that it’s not if we know how to fix the problem, it’s if we have the courage to do what’s right for our children.”