The devastating effects of gun violence are once again being faced by the United States after a shooter shot dead 21 people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde (Texas) last week. Although lawmakers have failed to pass meaningful reform so schools are looking for ways to prevent another tragedy on their campuses. According to recent history and government spending records, one of the most common responses by education officials is to invest more in surveillance tech.
Schools have been installing everything from AI-based tech to facial recognition software in recent years. These include programs that detect brandished weapons as well as online screening tools that scan student communications for potential violence. These startups claim that the tech can be used to help school officials prevent crises from occurring and respond faster when they do occur. This technology is also supported by pro-gun politicians. They argue that schools can prevent mass shootings by implementing enough monitoring.
There is little evidence to suggest that surveillance technology can stop these types of tragedies. Experts warn that these systems could lead to a culture of surveillance in schools that is harmful to students. Many schools will have networks of cameras using AI-based software. This would be in addition to other surveillance systems such as metal detectors and on-campus police officers.
Recode was told by Odis Jr that schools were trying to stop a shooter such as the one at Uvalde. There are many other factors we must consider when we fortify schools. This makes them feel like prisoners, and the students feel like suspects.
In the aftermath of gun violence, schools, and other venues still turn to surveillance technology. After the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school, the Broward County School District purchased analytic surveillance technology from Avigilon. This company offers AI-based recognition and tracks students’ appearances. The local school district declared that it would test a ZeroEyes gun detection system. ZeroEyes is one of many startups that make software that scans security camera feeds looking for weapons images. In the wake of the mass shooting at New York’s subway system, Eric Adams, the Mayor of New York, said that he would investigate weapons detection software made by Evolv.
This technology has been purchased by a variety of government agencies. According to a 2019 Recode document, education officials requested funding from the Department of Justice’s Schools Violence Prevention Program. The monitoring systems are designed to look for “warning signals of… aggressive behavior.” During the pandemic, surveillance technology was more prominent in schools than ever before. Some districts used Covid-19 relief funds to purchase software to ensure students were socially disengaged and wearing masks.
Many schools in Texas already had some type of surveillance technology installed before the Uvalde shooting. According to the Dallas Morning News, Texas had the highest number of contracts with digital surveillance companies in the United States. In fact, the state passed a law to “harden” schools in 2019. According to Chelsea Barabas (MIT researcher), the state’s investments in “security-and monitoring” services have increased from $68 per student up to $113 per student over ten years. However, spending on social work services grew from $25 per year to only $32 per student in the same period. These two areas are disparate in the state’s most diverse school districts.
Uvalde already had various types of security technology. Raptor Technologies sells a visitor control service as one of the surveillance tools. Another tool is Social Sentinel which monitors social media and is meant to identify any threats made to students or staff in the school district, according to, a document starting in the 2019-2020 school years.
It is not known which surveillance tools were used at Robb Elementary School during this mass shooting. JP Guilbault (CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent firm, Navigate360), stated that the tool played “an important role in an early warning system beyond shots being fired.” He also claimed that Social Sentinel could detect “suicidal or homicidal language” that was public and linked to school-, district-, or staff-identified names, as well as hashtags and social media handles associated with school-identified pages.
Guilbault said that he is not aware of any links between the gunman and the Uvalde Consolidated Independent Schools District or Robb Elementary via any social media sites. Guilbault said that while the Uvalde gunman posted threatening photos of two guns on his Instagram account prior to the shooting, there is no evidence that he threatened schools in the area. He private message to a girl that he didn’t know was planning to shoot an elementary school.
Advanced surveillance technology can miss warning signs. The so-called weapon detection technology can miss warning signs and flag items that aren’t weapons like walkie-talkies, laptops, umbrellas, and eyeglass cases. This tech won’t pick up weapons that have been hidden or covered if it is designed to work with security cameras. Researchers Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru have shown that facial recognition software can inadvertently include racism and sexism. According to an analysis by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, SN Technologies offered a facial recognition algorithm that could identify Black women 16 times faster than white men in a New York school district. Evidence also suggests that recognition technology might identify children’s faces more accurately than those used for adults.
Officials must be ready to act quickly on information to prevent violence, even if the technology works as advertised. It’s not clear what happened in the mass shooting in Uvalde. This is partly because local law enforcement shared conflicting accounts regarding their response. However, it’s clear that not having enough time to respond was the problem. Students dialed 911 multiple times, but law enforcement waited over an hour before confronting the gunman and killing him.
In the absence of violence, surveillance makes schools more difficult for students. Johnson, the Johns Hopkins professor, and Jason Jabbari a Washington University research professor found that students who use a variety of surveillance tools such as dress codes and security cameras have lower academic achievement. This is partly due to the fact that surveillance tools, which are rarely used to stop mass shootings, tend to increase the chances that school officials and law enforcement will suspend or punish students.
Barabas, an MIT researcher explained that digital surveillance is more likely than traditional methods to address minor disciplinary problems, given the rare nature of school shootings. “Expanded school surveillance is likely to increase these trends in ways which have a disproportionate impact on students who are often disciplined for infractions less serious than those of white students.
All of this is to remind schools that they don’t always use technology the way it is advertised. One school used Avigilon’s software to track one girl’s use of the restroom. This was supposed to end bullying. Recode was told by an executive from one facial recognition company that the technology was sometimes used to track the faces of parents who were barred from speaking with their children under a court order or legal order. Some schools even use monitoring software to track and monitor protesters.
All of these are consequences of schools feeling they have to go to great lengths to protect students in a country teeming with guns. Schools try to adapt because these weapons are still a part of American lives every day. This means that students have to adapt to surveillance. Even surveillance that does not show any evidence of working may be detrimental and could even cause them harm.