Director of Education
Deputy Superintendent, Niagara Falls Board of Education
Publish dateMar 15, 2023
Being late for school is one of the most common anxiety-inducing dreams experienced by people of all ages. You may have experienced it yourself: the feeling of running late and never being able to catch up with the rest of the class. What if that feeling was not a dream and, in fact, it is real because you’re a student that spends each morning waiting in line as part of the weapons screening process? This was the scene at many schools within the Niagara Falls City School District as security wands created long lines and set off false alarms at a rate of 50 percent, requiring half of all students to be searched daily and delayed in getting to class.
With a student body of 2,000, the use of wands, often followed by bag checks, delayed the start of each day by an hour, sometimes longer in inclement weather. While one shortcut would have been to pull aside a handful of high-risk students that may be considered a threat to others, it would be an irresponsible and biased tactic. Therefore, the dated screening process continued, cutting into valuable instructional time, and requiring the attention of approximately 20 staff, consisting of teachers and school safety officers that had to leave their posts to manage the lines at school entrances.
When COVID-19 hit, the issue was temporarily suspended.
Post-COVID-19 Return to Classroom Heightens Need for New Safety Protocols
Like many schools navigating the post-pandemic return to the classroom, Niagara Falls saw an uptick in violent actions. While the majority of incidents were not weapons related, there was more fighting. Mark Laurrie, school district superintendent, attributes the situation to students being away from each other for 18 months, having endured many social, physical, and sociological changes, and needing to figure out who they are, who their friends are, and how to reacclimate to the school day.
“Consider that many of these students missed a lot, if not all, of the experiences of being in middle school and suddenly, they’re returning as high school students. The first few months back were challenging,” said Laurrie. “Meanwhile, as the threat of gun violence across the country increased, we knew we couldn’t continue to rely solely on our dated process of wands, bag checks and cameras. At the urging of some members of the Board of Education, we looked into a more modern way to detect and address potential safety threats.”
A Layered Approach to Safety
Laurrie assembled a team responsible for developing a comprehensive and layered approach to safety that spans people, processes and technology. Part of their role included keeping all stakeholders apprised of each step in the planning, research, evaluation and roll-out phases of the safety plan. They did this using a variety of communication vehicles including regular updates via email and social media, along with speaking at school committee and Board of Education meetings.
The technology evaluation team included a school safety director, who was the former chief of police, along with a maintenance director and technology director. This team was tasked with researching weapons detection screening systems. The criteria included an unobtrusive, trauma-sensitive design that would not emulate the prison screening process. It also needed to be easy to set up and break down for use in other areas of the campus, leveraging the resource while ensuring the investment didn’t quickly become obsolete.
After speaking with several schools and a close examination of the systems at Highmark Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, the Niagara Falls School District determined the Evolv Express systems were the right choice. The technology exceeded expectations while offering the least intrusive, fastest and most comprehensive weapons detection system. The next step was to get consensus from the stakeholders and community.
Since the safety committee had been providing regular updates, the decision to install Evolv systems received unanimous support. The systems were first installed in the high school and two middle schools. To ease the transition to the new safety protocol and have the systems support the culture in the school environments, each Evolv system includes images of the school mascots.
Niagara Falls Schools Cite People, Processes and Technology Benefits
The schools have seen many benefits since installing the Evolv systems. “Using Evolv, we’ve reduced the entry screening process from one hour down to 15 minutes, and from a staff of 20 down to three, all without compromising safety,” said Laurrie. He added that the sensitivity ratings were set at the highest levels to over-alarm as part of establishing the new school safety standard. Still, they reduced the wand-based false alarm rate from 50 percent down to 10 percent using Evolv Technology.
Teachers and staff have returned to their posts throughout the building instead of being focused on the entrance. “The Evolv systems provide a ripple effect of security upgrades as students are less likely to act up when they see an adult in the hallway,” said Laurrie.
Also, since students easily flow into the schools, the systems create an opportunity for teachers and administrators to greet students to start the day. Developing these personal connections is an important part of a layered approach to safety – students are less likely to start fights or initiate violence when they feel seen, heard and part of the community.
Since setting up and taking down the Evolv systems is a seamless process, Niagara Falls also uses them for football games, choral concerts, graduations, and even voting.
From a technology perspective, Laurrie said, “We also like that Evolv systems work independently and don’t interfere with our computer network. And we have the assurance that the AI technology is regularly updated so we’re not investing in technology that will quickly be outdated. Everybody feels safer, the students don’t feel it is obtrusive, and the community feels more protected.”
After using the systems for a year, Niagara Falls decided to standardize on Evolv and purchased more systems for its elementary schools. Evolv continues to complement the school district’s layered approach to safety, making those late-to-school fears a thing of the past.