School Committee approves nearly $700K for weapons detectors at NBHS

School Committee approves nearly $700K for weapons detectors at NBHS

NEW BEDFORD — The School Committee approved transfers of almost $700,000 for the purchase of weapons detectors at New Bedford High School. The new Evolv weapons detectors — advanced metal detectors with artificial intelligence add-ons — could be operational at the high school this fall, according to committee members. 

Members of the public decried the purchase earlier in the meeting, and some tense discussion from committee members followed. Ultimately, the transfers were approved by a vote of five to two (committee members Melissa Costa and Colleen Dawicki voted against approval), meaning that funds will be redirected toward the school safety measure from the unspent salaries of paraprofessionals and special education teachers.

“We are a society now where bad things happen in public places. That’s the reality we deal with,” said Mayor Mitchell in comments supporting the purchase. “If anything, we are behind the times in implementing these kinds of security measures,” he said, noting that Fall River and Taunton schools already use these systems.

Among those who offered public comments were a teacher, paraeducator, and student — all opposing the system. The student, Fredricka Freire, said the weapons detectors could send a message to students: “It contributes to a climate of fear and anxiety and sends a message that we are criminals and not children,” she said.

Others noted in their comments that the company, Evolv, is currently the subject of multiple investigations, lawsuits, and investigative news stories that question its effectiveness.

A BBC investigation reported that Evolv machines failed to detect large knives 42% of the time, according to a private report that the company did not share with clients. Only a few months later, the BBC reported that a student in New York state was repeatedly stabbed after a multimillion dollar Evolv system failed to detect a knife. 

The company is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under accusations of “exaggerating the abilities of its products in its marketing materials,” according to Security Systems News, a trade publication. Last month, the Boston Globe reported that the company’s shareholders filed a class action lawsuit that alleges “false and deceptive statements” about the technology’s capabilities. 

Superintendent Andrew O’Leary dismissed these concerns, saying that the “proof of concept is clear at Durfee High School and Taunton High School,” indicating that he had traveled to observe those systems, but did not offer specifics. 

Mayor Mitchell pointed out that his children attended the high school, and that O’Leary’s still do. “My three girls, none of them ever felt unsafe in New Bedford High School,” Mitchell said, and added that O’Leary “has his own kids at New Bedford High as well, so I know he doesn’t come to this recommendation lightly.”

The two New Bedford High students who provided comments during the meeting, Freire and Elliott Talley, the student representative to the School Committee, said that other, more basic initiatives could be prioritized over a weapons detection system — like behavioral interventions or therapy dog sessions. 

Talley also said that the rushed, end-of-year process was not appropriate for an investment of this kind: “I don’t consider things like weapons detectors something we do during spend down. I consider that something we’d talk about during the year.”

The Light previously reported on the quiet investments into security that the School Committee has made this year, including a $35,000 expense to study for the eventual implementation of these weapons detectors. 

Both these weapons detectors and advanced security cameras enabled with artificial intelligence (AI) were purchased during the year-end “spend down” process, when the School Committee redesignates extra funds to ensure that nothing is left on the table. It’s very common to have extra money from salaries — a large and hard-to-predict category — moved into other pots at year’s end. 

But the hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring into advanced school security technology has happened quickly and behind the scenes. After the $400,000 order for security cameras appeared in a transfer request without any forewarning from administrators, School Committee member Dawicki told The Light it “triggered questions for me about why are we doing things this way and are there ways we could get ahead of these questions.”

Dawicki said she intended to speak with O’Leary about creating priorities so that end-of-year surplus funds would flow according to a plan, “so we’re not having these questions come up at a late stage in the game.” 

But the request for a weapons detection system also happened without much public participation. In March, a presentation was made to School Committee members during the executive session of the School Committee. (Executive sessions are closed door sessions used to negotiate union contracts, discuss district strategy, and other topics.) And even in that more-cloistered setting, many details of the proposed system and its cost were not shared with School Committee members, according to committee sources.

This month, the expense for the purchase similarly appeared on the list of requested funds transfers without forewarning, according to School Committee members. 

The district has declined to answer many of The Light’s questions about these security purchases. 

When asked about why the district spent $400,000 on an advanced security camera system that has AI-powered facial recognition, tracking, and monitoring, the district’s spokesperson Arthur Motta responded: “While the system is cloud based, we do not deploy any add-ons” — declining to say that the district would use any of the AI systems it paid for. Motta declined to make any officials available for a follow-up interview. 

But the newly approved Evolv system will likely run AI programs through those same cameras, as the company’s website says that its product “adds another layer of security by leveraging AI on your security cameras to identify brandished firearms.” Other uses of Evolv’s AI are for “powerful analytics and automated reports” that use “advanced sensor technology and artificial intelligence to distinguish between weapons and everyday items.”

Credit: Image provided by Evolv Express

School Committee members Bruce Oliveira, Ross Grace Jr., Joaquim “Jack” Livramiento, and Christopher Cotter all voted to approve the purchase of the weapons detectors. Only Cotter offered comments to explain his support during the meeting.

“We do have violence in our streets with guns and knives. It’s not a secret,” Cotter said. “There’s no price for safety or security for our kids, and I’ll never vote no on a safety issue.”

Addressing some of the concerns about the system’s effectiveness, Cotter said, “I’d rather say we tried than we made a mistake” by not purchasing the system. 

Grace Jr. provided comments over the phone: “The narrative unfortunately is that the high school is unsafe sometimes,” he said, “I can see some of the concerns with [the system], but it’s one part of a comprehensive approach to student and staff safety that’s reflective of today’s society.”

Email Colin Hogan at [email protected]

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