How gunshot detection systems could benefit, cost Virginia schools

RICHMOND, Va. -- A growing number of gunshot detection systems are being installed in schools and other building throughout the country.  Although few schools in Virginia currently have the technology, advocates say near instant detection of gunshots in mass shooting situations could save lives.

On the other hand, critics argue deadly shootings in Virginia schools are so rare that the systems are not worth the price tag.

Gunshot detection systems were initially developed for use by the military, but in recent years, private companies have begun urging school systems to adapt the technology. Tragedies that receive national attention, such as Sandy Hook or Columbine, have cause many parents to wonder if enough is being done to protect children in the classroom.

Multiple companies install and maintain gunshot detection systems, but in general, sensors are placed throughout a building that detect when and where a gun is fired.  Within milliseconds, the information is relayed to police, administrators, and other first responders. Alerts are also sent out within a building to notify the people inside that there is an active shooter in the building.

Industry representatives said gunshot detection systems modernize the way organizations respond to active shooter situations. Instead of relying on human behavior in a chaotic situation, such as a teacher or worker calling 9-1-1 to notify the authorities, the system feeds law enforcement near real time data about the threat and allows them to quickly develop a plan to neutralize it, representatives said.

Earlier this year, one company, Shooter Detection Systems (SDS), received "Safety Act" certification from the Department of Homeland Security. Safety Act certification provides companies with protection against liability when deploying anti-terrorism technology.

SDS said their systems rely on both acoustic and infrared sensors, and the company said their systems have never registered a "false alarm."

When Virginia Congressman Scott Taylor was in the General Assembly in 2016, he proposed legislation that would have required school districts to include gunshot detection technology in all new building construction plans.

Scott Taylor

"Imagine in one second, boom, one second, you know it's a gunshot and you know where they are," Taylor said during an interview in his D.C. office. The congressmen referenced FBI studies of mass shooter scenarios, "In a mass shooting, every 18 seconds someone dies, so every second counts."

However, Taylor's legislation did not make it out of committee, and both Republicans and Democrats voted against it. Part of the opposition was the cost of the systems, which range from $10,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars for installation alone.

"Cost is an issue. But I imagine, historically, you look at fire alarms; you'd probably have the same resistance initially because it cost something to put that in code and have it pervasive throughout society. But obviously in retrospect, it was a good decision," Taylor said.

But others say those education dollars could be put to better use elsewhere. Dr. Dewey Cornell, professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, has studied school safety for decades. Dr. Cornell said gunshot detection systems are not practical or cost effective because school shootings are extremely rare.

"School budgets are tight, and funds need to be allocated where they’re going to be most effective," Dr. Cornell said. "The average school has a fatal shooting every 6,000 years. . . Shootings are much more likely to occur in a restaurant, a parking lot, or a residence."

Dr. Cornell said Virginia has been very fortunate because we have not had a fatal shooting at a K-12 school since 1998. He credits threat assessment programs, a requirement at Virginia schools since 2013.  School threat assessment teams are tasked with identifying and addressing threats within a school before they escalate to violence.

"Kids coming forward to report guns, threats of violence, and schools taking those threats seriously and investigating them, that more than anything else has prevented school shootings," Dr. Cornell said.

Although SDS said they have never had a false alert, Dr. Cornell said certain sounds can trigger false alarms, which he said can eventually make police response times to decrease.

Debbie Long, who has one child in Henrico public schools, said her son's school does a good job of notifying her of even the most minor safety concerns via either robocalls or other methods.

"I believe the systems do exist. It’s just a matter of implementing it during an emergency," Long said.  "School shootings do not happen that often, and there are a lot of needs within the school systems.”

Representative Taylor said he and his aides will look into the potential of school grants, and they may redirect funds that could be used by Virginia schools to help for shooter detection systems.

SDS said their footprint in Virginia right now includes just one private school in Hampton Roads, but several other private buildings throughout the state.

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