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Schools in Kentucky are considering pricy AI technology to detect guns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the frequency of mass shootings accelerates in the U.S., local school boards are facing questions from parents about how they will keep their children safe. That's especially true right now in Louisville, Ky., amid escalating community violence and more students bringing guns to class. District leaders there are considering a pricey new gun-sensing technology to keep firearms out. But as Jess Clark with Louisville Public Media reports, some security experts have concerns.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: In the lobby of Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky., Chase Connolly tucks a model firearm into his waistband and walks between two gray posts on either side of the door.

CHASE CONNOLLY: If I'm walking through with our test piece here, what'll happen is the system...

(SOUNDBITE OF DETECTION SYSTEM BEEPING)

CONNOLLY: ...Will light up red. You get an audible alert, and it actually takes my picture.

CLARK: Connolly is with a company called Evolv. He's trying to show off their AI weapons detection system. They want to sell it to Jefferson County Public Schools. Connolly says this technology is different than traditional metal detectors. It looks for a specific type of metal used to make firearms. That means students can walk through with other metal objects, like phones, keys and change, without setting off the alarm.

CONNOLLY: You want people to be unperturbed as they move through this. They're moving at the pace of life.

CLARK: That's Evolv's tagline - moving at the pace of life. Tammy Bradshaw-Cook is watching the demo closely. She's in charge of security at another high school and sees weapons detection as a helpful tool.

TAMMY BRADSHAW-COOK: I'm here, and I'm doing everything I can. But we still don't - you know, something could still come in this building, and we have no way to stop it.

CLARK: So far this year, staff in this public school district have confiscated 26 guns from students in its 50 middle and high schools. District officials say they want to do something, but many are hesitant to bring in traditional metal detectors over concerns kids' belongings would be constantly searched. Middle school principal Christel Lanier says this technology seems to thread that needle.

CHRISTEL LANIER: Schools are not a place to criminalize children, so this is a deterrent. And that, I think, will keep us very safe.

CLARK: But Evolv is also 24 times more expensive than traditional metal detectors. To put the system in all middle and high schools, the district estimates it will cost $17 million over five years. And some security experts say that's a huge price to pay to a company that hasn't been transparent.

DONALD MAYE: The way Evolv has presented its technology to the public misrepresents the capabilities.

CLARK: Donald Maye is with IPVM, a firm that does independent testing of security technology. Maye says Evolv won't let his firm test their tech, which is rare. He also found that a review Evolv promoted as fully independent was actually paid for by the company and edited by executives. Evolv says it limits third-party testing because bad actors could exploit any gaps that are exposed.

In addition to Maye's concerns about transparency, he also notes that, contrary to the company's promise of a seamless walk-through, the system frequently goes off on harmless items that contain the same metal used in firearms.

MAYE: Objects found in schools - such as Chromebooks, umbrellas, water bottles, binders - are often confused with weapons.

CLARK: Meanwhile, there are reports of real weapons slipping through Evolv detectors in at least two districts, including a knife and two handguns. While school officials in Louisville weigh the pros and cons, Evolv is rapidly expanding. The company says its system is already in 400 schools nationwide.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Clark