Salt Lake City Utah October 18, 2023
When Salt Lake City students at East, West and Highland high schools return from fall break on Oct. 17, they’ll be met with new weapons detectors and security guards at the doors.
The detection machines are different from traditional metal detectors and use artificial intelligence to look for weapons, according to the manufacturer Evolv. So students won’t have to empty backpacks or go through one at a time.
Private security guards will stand off to the side and watch a tablet showing video of the students going through. If something suspicious is detected, the machine will beep and a light will turn red. On the tablet, the guard will be shown a red box around the suspicious area — like a student’s pocket, for example.
If that happens and the student identifies an innocuous item that may have set off the detector, like a water bottle, the student can walk back through and hold up the item, said Salt Lake City School District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin. If the machine only focuses on the water bottle and nothing else, the student is free to go. But if the student doesn’t comply or does have a concerning item, they would be pulled aside and an administrator would be called to handle the situation. The security guards, who will be assigned to specific schools, are only there to man the machines.
“We want them to also, you know, build relationships with students, talk to them as they come through, be another friendly face in the school,” Chatwin said. “But what is definitely not their role is the student discipline piece and searching [students].”
The first week back from break will be a “soft launch” so students can get comfortable with the setup. But starting on Oct. 23, Chatwin said the machines will be functional.
The district board approved a contract in January to lease the detectors at a cost of $1,440,298. Over the summer, an additional lease was added for Horizonte Instruction and Training Center but those have not been installed yet.
For staffing, the board approved a $1,108,490.40 contract in August with PalAmerican Security. Board members Ashley Anderson and Mohamed Baayd voted against it.
According to the district, the detectors are necessary because “throughout the school year, our high schools report numerous instances of students bringing weapons to campus, which is of great concern to us.” District leaders are also worried about a rise in gun violence across the country, including at schools.
Nationally, The Washington Post reported that the number of guns brought to and seized in schools is significantly increasing. Vernal Middle School in northeastern Utah was used by the Post to illustrate the problem. Last fall, a 13-year-old brought a loaded gun to school in his backpack. According to the Post, the student reportedly planned to shoot his ex-girlfriend, but a school resource officer was tipped off and was able to apprehend the student before anything happened.
At an Oct. 10 open house at Highland High, families were able to get a look at the machines and ask the district or Evolv questions.
Eddie Bridges, a parent of two students at Highland, got a demonstration before going to his daughter’s band concert, which was the same night as the open house.
“Now, let me be clear, though: it [the detectors] should be in schools. I’m for the Second Amendment, but it should have been in schools years ago,” Bridges said. “It makes you feel a little bit more secure.”
Kathy Horn, the grandparent of a Highland student, is also behind the idea. Horn used to teach in Milwaukee Public Schools in Wisconsin and said there were metal detectors there, something that made her feel safe.
“That’s just the way things are. And you have to be realistic. It’s changing and I want my grandkids to be safe,” Horn said.
A sign outside Highland High School on Oct. 10, 2023 directing people to remove any umbrellas from their bags before going through the school’s weapons detectors. However, they can leave everything else in their bags and pockets.
Halle Backman, a senior at Highland, wrote about the detectors in her school’s newspaper when the district was considering them last year. At first, Backman wasn’t a fan. She said she already feels safe at school and thought detectors were unnecessary. If anything, she thought having to go through a detector every morning might make her feel less safe.
Researchers have said that having devices like metal detectors could make students more afraid of violence at school.
But now, Backman said she feels more neutral toward them.
“I’m not totally sure how I feel about it, but I think I’m more in support of it than I was before, just because I don’t really see why it’s such a big deal to just walk through it” Backman said. “And if it’s here to keep us safe, I don’t really see why it’s going to be a huge problem.”
A concern raised by Mohamed Baayd, a Black board member, was that the new setup could be especially harmful for marginalized students. Chatwin said the district will provide the board with a monthly report of how many students are stopped because of the machines, the demographics of those students, why they were stopped and what happened.
When asked about the detector’s effectiveness, Evolv vice president and head of education Neil Sandhoff said they share that information with customers, but not publicly because it’s considered “security sensitive information.”
No security technology is perfect, Sandhoff said, but the company is clear with their customers about the system’s limitations. He said the machine is best at finding “mass casualty weapons.”
Evolv has been criticized by IPVM, a security industry trade publication, for not being more transparent. Some security experts have also questioned the system’s effectiveness.
Families walk through the weapons detectors at Highland High, Oct. 10, 2023. Some families were at the school specifically to see the new machines at an open house, while others were at the school for a band concert but stopped to look at the detectors.
In other schools across the country, there have been reports of the machines triggering on things that are not weapons or failing to detect actual weapons.
The weapons detectors in Salt Lake City Schools are a 4-year pilot program, after which Chatwin said the district will evaluate whether they want to keep them. She said weapons detectors are just one of the ways the district is working to keep students safe.
The weapons detectors come at a time when lots of schools across the state are evaluating the physical safety and security of their campuses. The Granite School District has been piloting the same weapons detectors in Hunter High School.
This past legislative session, Utah lawmakers created a School Security Task Force and set aside $75 million that schools could apply to use for safety and security improvements. State education leaders are currently looking at using $3 million of that money to buy firearm-detection software for Utah schools, which was mandated by lawmakers.