Athena Weapons Detection System Software

Newport News and Utica with Weapons-Detection Lessons

The January 6 shooting of an elementary school teacher in Newport News, Virginia, by a 6-year-old student has left the country aghast—especially since school officials were warned four times that day that the first grader had a gun, yet failed to find it in a search. The school district has since announced that it will purchase walk-through metal detectors for each school in the city.

In the meantime, the Utica (New York) school district is replacing a multimillion-dollar weapons detection system after a student smuggled a knife past the detector into a high school and stabbed a classmate. Reportedly, the superintendent who approved the purchase mistakenly believed the system would detect knives. Utica Schools is looking for a more comprehensive weapons-detection solution.

So much went wrong in both cases. The common theme, however, is the absence of appropriate security policies, procedures, and standards in the schools. Let’s hope that the selection, testing, purchase, installation, use, and maintenance of the technology in these two school systems, as well as staff training, exceed the apparent level of care applied to responding to alerts about responding to a boy with a gun or choosing a detection system in the first place.

Administrators in both Newport News and Utica should understand that effective walk-through weapons-screening systems must balance the competing needs of speed, limited resources, and effectiveness. As administrators learned in both cases, the ability to find every type of weapon they are looking for is paramount. Here are the key factors that that both districts should be considering:

Compliance with federal accuracy standards (zero false negatives): The current standard for walk-through weapons detection is embodied in NIJ Standard–0601.02 (2003), which superseded a version from the year 2000—which itself superseded the original 1974 standard (NILECJ-STD-0601.00 Level 1 and 2). According to that standard, the system must be able to detect a 6.35 mm (0.25 in) caliber pistol up to 2.54 cm (1.0 in) from the surface of the weapon carrier’s body. In practice, that means 100 percent detection of guns, rifles, and bombs. The standard also provides detection requirements for smaller objects containing less metal, such as knives and razor blades. If you buy a system that follows a standard then you will catch the items you are looking for when you set the WDS to the correct standard to find the knife or weapon.

High-efficiency (minimal false positives): As every police department and company with an alarm system knows, false positives erode the value of security systems. Besides causing delay, backup, and expenditure of staff time and resources, they undermine faith in the system. In such cases, operators come to expect alerts to be erroneous, making their follow-up searches laxer or even perfunctory and performative. In the worst cases, operators simply assume all alarms are false, leading to complacency and adjustments to make the detection technology less sensitive.

However, if the school is trying to detect knives, boxcutters, or similar items, it will likely have to heighten system sensitivity, increasing the number of false positives and adding delay and required manpower.

Quick throughput: Getting hundreds or even thousands of students through a school’s front door and into their classrooms by opening bell is a major operation. Adding entry screening makes it much more complex. Effective systems should allow students to walk through at normal speeds without having to remove coats, watches, keys, phones, wallets or jewelry.

Dual alarms: When it detects a weapon, the system should both produce an audible alarm and a visible alarm, such as a flashing light.

Real-time integrated alerts: Detecting a weapon should also trigger a real time alert to security staff and/or systems, depending on the school’s security setup. For example, an alert could be sent to a nearby surveillance camera for closeup monitoring and recording of the incident or to a mass-notification system that announces the presence of an active assailant. Alerts can also be sent via app to smartphones of security staff or to the security control room.

As alarming as the Newport News and Utica attacks are, no one considers them an aberration. In fact, two other school shootings occurred on the same day as the Newport News incident but were overshadowed by an attack perpetrated by someone who probably still has his baby teeth. Schools that choose to invest in walkthrough metal detectors would be wise to ensure that these systems conform to federal standards, are supported by appropriate policies, procedures, and practices, and fit the specific needs of the facility.

{Michael Gips, CPP, CSyP, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security. In 2022, he was named by IFSEC International as the Most Influential Person in Security in the Thought Leadership category. In 2021, he received the OSPA for Outstanding U.S. Security Consultant. Gips writes frequently on all aspects of security.}

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