The new school year is here and safety is top of mind at many districts in Michigan. In recent years, school shootings across the country pushed a number of communities to fund major security overhauls.
In some districts, video software similar to controversial facial recognition technology is part of the plan.
One of those is the Gibraltar School District. Superintendent Amy Conway spoke to Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about her district’s security changes and how it plans to use the software.
Small district, big changes
Gibraltar is a Downriver suburb of Detroit with a population of about 4,500. The school system has six buildings.
Gibraltar voters passed a multi-million dollar bond in 2017 that included money for school security changes. Most recently, the district has renovated the entrances at schools, so that no one can access classrooms and other areas without entering the main office to check in first. Its enhanced video technology system was installed in 2018.
Video technology, but not facial recognition
The Gibraltar district put in hundreds of cameras that allow administrators to locate and track people through a school building. Conway says the technology can lock in on certain details about a person, for example, the colors of a shirt, pants, or backpack.
"If we locate a person in the building, a student or somebody who's wearing, let's say, a pink shirt and blue jeans, we can [highlight] that individual and the computer then, and the software, will try to find anybody who has that similar clothing on," Conway says.
Conway emphasizes that Gilbraltar's system does not have the same capabilities as the software that's been causing controversy in a number of cities across the country. Unlike the Detroit Police Department's facial recognition software, the district's program cannot scan a still photo of someone's face and run it against live video in the schools to locate that person.
Fears of an active shooter
However, the school hopes that it would be useful if a serious security situation comes up.
"You'd be able to at least know where the active shooter was located within a building, which could be very helpful for law enforcement as they try to stop what is going on," Conway says.
Since installing the cameras, the Gibraltar School District hasn't had any major incidents, but Conway says the systems have been used to find lost packages and to investigate vandalism and theft.
The cameras and software are made by Avigilon Corporation. In a statement, the company described its Appearance Search product as a "sophisticated deep learning AI video search engine."
Avigilon declined to tell Michigan Radio the exact number of districts using its products in Michigan. According to the company's website, it works with Ilitch Holdings, Inc. to provide some of the same services in Detroit at Little Caesars Arena, Comerica Park, and nearby businesses.
In the promotional video below, which was posted in 2017, Avigilon demonstrated how its customers can use the software.
Increased security often raises discussions about potential invasions of privacy, but Conway says she has not heard any complaints or concerns from parents, students, or her employees.
"Our community's been very supportive because we want to keep our students safe and our staff safe," she says.