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Friday, October 7, 2022

After Uvalde shooting, tech companies tout their solutions. But do they work? | Technology

After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas , an all-too-familiar question emerged: how do we prevent such horror from happening again? A handful of companies have said they have tech solutions that could help.

They included Drone firm Axon , which promoted a remotely-operated Taser device to be deployed in schools. EdTech companies, including Impero Software, said their student surveillance services could flag warning signs and help prevent the next attack.

The companies are part of a thriving school security industry, one that has grown to $3.1bn in 2021 from just $2.7m in 2017, according to market research firm Omdia. The Security Industry Association, which counts more than 400 companies targeting kindergarten and elementary schools among its members, has spent nearly $2m on lobbying since 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org. Gun safety legislation passed by Congress last week included more than $300m to bolster the STOP School Violence Act, a federal grant program created after the Parkland shooting to fund school security that was endorsed by the industry group.

But gun control advocates, teachers’ groups and tech watchdogs are skeptical increased spending on high-tech security measures will help curb gun violence in American schools, and in some cases may even cause more harm to students.

“We are all weeping for the children lost in Uvalde, but some tech execs are chomping at the bit to make money off this tragedy,” said Rewan Al-Haddad, campaign director at tech watchdog SumOfUs, adding that some of the solutions “aren’t just unhelpful, they are actively harmful”.

Days after the Uvalde shooting, Arizona-based drone company Axon announced the development of a remotely-operated Taser drone system “as part of a long-term plan to stop mass shootings”.

A computer-drawn image shows a yellow drone with a camera and the word 'Taser' on the side.
A Taser drone system, as shown in this computer-generated rendering, by Axon Enterprise was put on hold after it received backlash. Photograph: AP

The publicly traded company develops weapon products for military, law enforcement and civilians and has a market cap of $6.87bn. It claims its technology has saved 266,000 lives, but the announcement of its Taser drone created a maelstrom of backlash – leading nine people to resign from Axon’s advisory board and the company to pause the project indefinitely.

“In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward,” said Rick Smith, Axon’s founder and CEO, in an online statement.

The use of drones in police forces has been on the rise in recent years, with at least 1,172 police departments nationwide in possession of the 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 weaponized devices that advocates found concerning.

More common than drones on campus is surveillance technology. The number of public schools deploying video surveillance systems has risen from 20% in 1999 to 83% in 2017, according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Thousands of American school districts, have contracted with tech companies to track students’ activities on school-issued computers, including to monitor what students search for and what websites they visit.

Impero Software, a company that pitched its own technology directly in response to the Uvalde news, promises to monitor kindergarten through 12th grade students and flag warning signs such as searching for information on weapons

Impero and similar companies use artificial intelligence to monitor all content students type in official school email accounts, chats or documents 24 hours a day. A student who types “how to kill myself” into a search on a school computer could have police immediately called to their home, for example.

Yet despite the growing adoption of security tools in schools across the US, the number mass shootings at schools has remained relatively constant throughout the past 30 years and reached an unprecedented high at secondary schools in the past five years.

A study conducted by researchers at Washington University and Johns Hopkins found that surveillance responses to gun violence within kindergarten through 12th grade school systems “have not stopped the increasing frequency of their occurrence, but have instead increased racial and ethnic disparities in multiple forms of discipline”.

A white dome-shaped camera is mounted to the corner of a red brick building.
Schools have steadily adopted security tools, such as surveillance cameras, despite mass shootings remaining constant. Photograph: Shafkat Anowar/AP

“I am hearing more and more that schools are starting to look like prisons, and that makes young people feel more like suspects than students,” said Odis Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins who co-authored the study.

The presence of surveillance technology increases the capacity for schools to identify and discipline students for less serious offenses, Johnson explained, leading to more arrests of and legal action against children, particularly of students of color. Non-white students are also being surveilled in higher numbers: Johnson’s research showed Black students are four times more likely to attend a high- versus low-surveillance school.

“Educators have fought for safe and welcoming schools for decades, so of course we want common-sense security and safety measures. But that’s a far cry from efforts to turn schools into armed fortresses or make them operate like high-tech prisons,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “That undermines the education of our kids who need safe places to play and just exist – that’s why we want fewer, not more, guns on campuses.”

The Uvalde shooting, Weingarten said, was a tragic example of the limits of such 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’s known in the education sector, as a “hardened” school, where digital and physical security technology are deployed.

“While hardening will make security companies wealthy, it isn’t a panacea for the problem of school shootings,” he said. “We only need to look at Robb elementary in Uvalde, a hardened school, where officers waited more than an hour to engage the shooter.”

Impero Software did not respond to a request for comment.

For many school safety and gun control advocates, the debate around high-tech security obscures the issue at the core of the school shooting scourge: access to guns is the primary risk factor for such tragedy.

“The only thing that keeps kids safe from mass shootings is making sure people do not have access to weapons of mass destruction that can kill entire classrooms of children in one clip,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a nonprofit organization representing parents of children in schools.

“We cannot innovate our way out of this,” she added. “The saddest part about this is that it is not whether we know how to solve the problem, it’s whether we have the courage to do what is right by our children.”

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