Douglas County commissioners approve $1M for controversial weapons detection system at STEM school in Highlands Ranch
Three years after a deadly shooting, STEM School in Highlands Ranch is installing a weapons detection system. But there are serious questions about how well the technology works at keeping kids safe.
Douglas Board of County Commissioners approved nearly $1 million for a 1-year trial of the system called Evolv. The company that makes it says it's in hundreds of sports arenas, amusement parks and schools around the country. For years, the company claimed it could detect all weapons. It has since backed off that claim, as reports have emerged of weapons getting through and people being hurt.
The company now faces several lawsuits, and Utica Schools in New York is demanding its money back.
Just six months after the school district approved nearly $4 million for the Evolv system, a student brought a knife to school and stabbed a classmate repeatedly.
The superintendent said he didn't know the system wasn't designed to detect knives. "The system for arenas prevent mass casualties not for school use."
The company says the system uses advanced digital sensors and artificial intelligence to detect weapons as a person walks through.
Douglas County resident and retired airline pilot Doug Schull has researched security technology, and, when he learned of the commissioners' decision, he decided to attend a demonstration by the company.
"I wanted to see for myself just exactly what this system did or did not do," Schull said.
He showed CBS News Colorado a half dozen knives of various sizes that he says Evolv failed to detect as he walked through.
Schull says he warned county commissioners. Commissioner Lora Thomas is the only one who opposed the system. "It provides a false sense of security. There was also not a broad community conversation. This has all been done in the dark," Thomas said.
Thomas says, when she's raised concerns at commission meetings, she's been shut down by Commissioners Abe Laydon and George Teal. "All we've talked about is Evolv. There's never any conversation about any other provider," she said.
Among her concerns is an investigation by a security technology research group called IPVM. It found Evolv fails to detect most knives, as well as certain guns and explosives.
Conor Healy, director of government research for IPVM, says the company colluded with a testing center to delete the low scores from a public report, "Evolv executives had been able to directly edit the report over a period of months. We even had more than a dozen draft copies with tracked changes."
Healy says the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) at the University of Mississippi accidentally sent him the original unredacted report. "It was pretty shocking — more than twice length of what was released publicly."
The university acknowledges there were two reports, but it would not give CBS News Colorado the unredacted version, saying it "contains trade secrets and confidential commercial information ..."
The testing center — also known as NCS4 — says the devices were, "configured for a professional sporting event," and the results, "do not directly correlate to educational facilities." It says company, "feedback is welcome and encouraged," but, "exercise evaluator scores are not adjusted." It did not say whether low scores, such as knives, were deleted.
Healy says Evolv not only manipulated the original draft and removed negative findings, it paid for the testing and set the criteria, "Kind of like if your math teacher let you choose the questions on the test."
Healy says Evolv tried to stop him from releasing IPVM's findings, saying it could impact public safety. The company told CBS News Colorado it discloses, "all aspects of the Evolv Express system including limitations ..." to its clients and that, "security must include a layered approach that involves people, process, and technology."
Since the NCS4 tests in 2021, it says, "Upgrades to the system have been made ..."
STEM school officials say they're aware the system needs improvements but insist it learns as it's used.
Doug Schull says kids deserve better, "If we're going to protect our schools, let's protect our schools — not do it half way."
Commissioner Laydon pushed for the Evolv system at STEM. He sent CBS News Colorado a statement saying, ".. No school security system is perfect. That said, the parents we represent demand that we not let perfect be the enemy of the good and continue to pursue innovative technology to protect children. I will continue to uphold our agreement with the board of education not to put kids further at risk by speaking specifically about physical school technology, which would alert the bad guys how to infiltrate it. That said, we know this technology at STEM has been implemented at Disney World, large sports arenas, and the Academy Awards. If it's good enough for actors and athletes, it's a good enough to pilot to protect our kids here in Douglas County. If for some reason it doesn't work, I have no doubt we will continue to explore alternatives with STEM."
Here is the full statement from Evolv:
"We communicate all aspects of the Evolv express system — including limitations and capabilities — with the trusted security professionals at our customers, partners, and prospects. We believe there should be nothing schools deciding to deploy Evolv express don't know about the technology before making the decision to include our systems as part of their security approach. That's why our team is available to answer all questions from customers to make sure they have the information necessary to determine if Evolv express is the right weapons screening system for them.
There is no perfect solution that will stop 100% of threats, including ours, which is why security must include a layered approach that involves people, process and technology. Evolv Express is one part of that layered approach that helps empower schools to create a safer, more welcoming environment, so the focus can remain on learning. We are currently working with over 400 school buildings around the country.
With respect to the NCS4 report, Evolv followed the same protocol all vendors are required to follow and reference. The full report is available to customers and prospects under NDA. The NCS4 operational exercise was conducted in October 2021, and upgrades to the system have been made since that time. New software releases are made 1-2 times a year.
Communicating about weapons detection security requires a delicate balance between educating stakeholders on new technology and not providing bad actors with the information they could use to do harm.
So, while our public-facing materials are intentionally not specific, we communicate all aspects of the Evolv Express system — including limitations and capabilities — with the trusted security professionals at our customers, partners, and prospects. The best technology is transparent as to what it does without disclosing a blueprint to a bad actor that could use it to do harm."
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