By: Micah Berger-Sollod
New Policies at Baltimore School for the Arts
On a cold October morning, two things greeted students at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Previously unused metal detectors were suddenly being operated on every student going through the Madison street doors. Just past the doors, friendly administrators were searching through bags. This is a result of a Baltimore City Public School System’s policy that had been in place for seven months but had only just been introduced to the halls of BSA. Bag searches and metal detectors are contentious issues in schools around the United States and, with a new Baltimore school board contract, the voices objecting to these practices have only become louder.
According to Principal Rosiland Cauthen, the introduction of the policies into BSA were sparked by an inspection by the school district’s office. The inspector was disappointed with BSA’s lack of implementation of the metal detector and bag search policies. Metal detectors were only in use for a single morning after the inspection and they caused a massive line around the block. Students took off their bags and emptied their pockets before going through. Despite that, the metal detectors often rang off with false alarms. The bag searches were performed by BSA administrators, Thomas Askey, Dawn Strickland, and Rosiland Cauthen. With over four hundred students at BSA, the entire process that morning was painfully slow.
The next morning, the lines were virtually gone. No one was being forced to go through the metal detectors, however, the bag searches in the lobby still remained.
Four months later, bag searches are still present at BSA. Over the course of 22 days, a reporter from the BSA Muse was checked only nine times. This means the reporter was only checked 40 percent of the times they entered the building. The reporter also stated that they never had multiple pockets in their bag checked, though it has occurred for other students.
Principal Cauthen made it clear the use of metal detectors and bag searches were Baltimore Public Schools Policy and not BSA policy. “In the climate that we’re living in, where we’ve seen an increase in violence, an increase in hate, an increase in random shootings in schools and other places, as much as we can do to prevent anything from happening, I think we should,” stated Cauthen.
Students of BSA have cast skepticism on these policies, however. Naija Delong, a senior actor, said that the new policies “didn’t really” make her feel safer and that she thought of them as “pointless”. “It’s just an extra step to get to school,” said Delong.
Kayla Hammonds, a film freshman, said “It kind of reminds me of how prison systems are set up. I get the policy because of all the threats recently, but the execution of the policy is not great.”
Bag searches have been a long-criticized practice in Baltimore public schools. Bag searches, also known as safety checks, first became a mandatory policy after an altercation at Digital Harbor High School in April of 2022. There has been no public information released on this altercation.
Ethan Eblaghie, president of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City, claims that safety checks are often paired with racial profiling. In an Instagram post, the Baltimore Student Union, a student-led group Eblaghie is associated with, stated, “[the safety checks] did not get weapons out of schools and resulted in a wholsesale logical disaster.” In the same post, Eblaghie said that the safety checks were “an offensive disgrace to students with disabilities” and that the policy is anti-disability and anti-poverty.
That being said, research on the effectiveness of bag searches has come up with diverse results. Over the course of two years, the Los Angeles Unified School District found 37 knives, 18 containers of pepper spray, 16 razor blades, three shanks, two box cutters, and a stun gun. Additionally, there were 137 pairs of scissors that could also be used as weapons, 73 instances of illegal drugs, and 56 over-the-counter medications.
On the other hand, an internal audit of Los Angeles schools found that 25 percent of schools did not have enough personnel to perform the searches and that people of color were searched at a disproportionate rate to caucasian students.
Darryl Johnson, BSA’s school police officer, said, “At BSA, weapons can often be part of what someone uses for class.” Johnson reflected that many students at BSA use equipment, such as box cutters, that can be easily used as a weapon.
Metal Detectors and New Contract in Baltimore City Schools
Metal detectors are another story entirely. In October, the school board had an agenda item that would have transferred 1.2 million dollars in funds from the general fund to capital expenditures. The agenda said the money was for a “weapon detection systems project” but gave no additional details. Melissa Schober, a parent at BSA, took notice. Schober thought that “weapons detection systems” was a unique phrasing and went looking online for vendors that used the same phrasing. She found one particular company, Evolv Express, a company under Alliance Technologies Group, that uses that same phrasing.
Preceding a public school board meeting, Schober suspected that a procurement of that size suggested that a contract with Evolv had likely been in the works for a long time. Schober stated her suspicions at the public board meeting. But according to Schober, “the commissioners seemed surprised and were asking lots of questions.”
“It seemed that the board had not been briefed on the contract,” said Schober. Schober suspected that the true agent and organizer of the contract was the City Schools’ purchasing agent, Shabray Matthews.
In response to the board meeting, Schober put in a request for the information via the Maryland Public Information Act. “I wanted to see the behind-the-scenes thinking on the [Evolv] systems and what, if anything, was the school system thinking of the efficacy of the [Evolv] systems,” she said.
The school board’s plan, preceding a full use of the Evolv weapon detection system, was to have a 200,000 dollar contract that intended to pilot the weapons detection systems at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. Maurice A. Gaskins, assistant director of facilities design and construction at Baltimore City Public Schools, said in an email, “We picked Mervo because they have up to 1k students scheduled to be in and out of the building.”
Additionally, Brooks Gearhart, account executive and business development rep at Alliance Technologies, claimed that “Evolv metal detectors work at 10x the speed of normal metal detectors.”
Both statements were within the emails between Evolv Technologies and the school board released by Schober’s indictment of the Maryland Public Information Act. These statements have not been confirmed outside these emails.
Brian Nolan, the acting superintendent of Utica schools, a school district that also used Evolv’s weapon detection system, said that the system does not detect knives. Utica is now phasing out 4 million dollars in metal detectors from their school systems and replacing them with new ones.
Schober is particularly worried about faulty metal detectors because her child must wear a metal ankle foot orthotic because of gait.
In May, Peter George, CEO of Evolv Technologies told the Washington Post that the metal detectors have difficulty distinguishing between chromebooks and guns. In November of 2021, an Urbana, Illinois school board utilizing Evolv systems found that 60-70 percent of alarms were chromebooks.
Internet Protocol Video Market, a security and surveillance industry research group and trade publication, investigated the effectiveness of Evolv metal detector systems. After a meeting between IPVM and an Evolv salesperson in which Evolv promised to disclose all possible issues, IPVM continued to find weaknesses in the system. After IPVM’s expose on the issue, Evolv claimed that “they were putting the general public at risk.” IPVM found that 15 percent of weapons sent through Evolv’s metal detectors were undetected.
Evolv also claims to be giving away free systems to schools as part of charitable acts. This is also false. Schools that receive free metal detectors are forced to be marketing partners for Evolv Technologies.
In mid-December, during Schober’s correspondence with the school board, Schober summed up her problems by saying, “The school system is considering an expensive, proprietary system with almost no public efficacy data.” In a report by the BBC, it was reported that Evolv was missing many large knives at stadiums like Manchester Arena. In Utica’s school systems, in reports by IPVM, and in reports by the BBC, knives remain one of the most missed weapons by Evolv systems despite the assurance that the systems do in fact detect weapons. It is clear that Evolv is mislabeling its service. Evolv’s systems are not effective weapons detection systems. They are metal detectors.
“I am sorry that you felt the need to draft a rebuttal to a parent of a disabled kid who is concerned about the District buying an expensive security system that might not work and might, in the process, delay entry, especially for students with disabilities,” Schober said in response.
On December 13th, the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City and John L. Davis, Chief of Schools for Baltimore City Public Schools spoke in a school board meeting. In the meeting, Evolv said that “students enter through the metal detectors at regular walking pace.” However other school districts have had other results. In Utica, New York as well as in Dorchester county students are often forced to take out metal items from their bags before entering. Evolv also stated that their systems eliminated the need for searches. Despite claims otherwise, there is no basis to the claim that Evolv can lower violence on school campuses.
Evolv piloted metal detectors at Mergenthaler High School, Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Francis M. Wood High School, and Patterson High School in August of 2022. After the first pilot at Mervo, Principal Tricia Lawrence said that “The sense of security provided is why I’m a strong advocate for this type of system.” and that the systems were “effective” and “non-intrusive”. Also at the meeting, representatives from Evolv laid out a timetable for the use of their system in Baltimore City public schools.
Student Commissioner Quinn Katz-Zogby, a student-elected member of the school board, delivered testimony at a Baltimore School Board policy meeting in which he cited multiple failures of the Evolv system. Evolv did not respond to his testimony. Katz-Zogby was also excluded from the communications between Evolv and the school board.
Note: Quinn Katz-Zogby is on staff at the BSA Muse, but was not otherwise involved in this story.
Ethan Eblaghie, President of the ASCBC, said at a Baltimore School Board policy meeting that the contract was “at best ill informed and at worst misguided.” Eblaghie continues to object to the communications between Evolv and the School board without notification of ASCBC.
“A failure to consult ASCBC in August implies the promise to consult on the Evolv contract was nothing but lip service. The support amongst the directly impacted, students, teachers, and staff, for mandatory safety checks is dubious”, Eblaghie said of the contract during the school board meeting. Eblaghie also claimed that disabled students were unfairly profiled by metal detectors and safety checks, though statistics were not provided.
At the end of hours of testimonies from student groups and Evolv representatives, all but one of the school board members voted for the Evolv contract. “I feel less angry and more disappointed,” said Katz-Zogby.
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