Despite concerns, Utah education leaders are poised to approve $3M for gun-detection software in schools

Lawmakers expressed concerns about the company apparently “leveraging” the planned contract for more money.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Security cameras at East High School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. State education officials are considering a $3 million contract with AEGIX Global to administer firearm-detection software to Utah schools — a company state legislators raised concerns about last month.

State education officials are considering a $3 million contract with AEGIX Global to administer firearm-detection software to Utah schools — a company state legislators raised concerns about last month.

The Salt Lake City-based security software company was first selected in August to install a gun-detection software product that it’s authorized to distribute, called ZeroEyes, in K-12 public schools across the state, pending final approval from the Utah State Board of Education.

The $3 million contract was part of a larger $75 million school safety bill, HB61, passed in the spring legislative session. The remaining $72 million was intended to finance various school safety projects, with school districts required to submit applications by Sept. 15 for pieces of the rest.

But last month, the board voted to postpone approving the AEGIX contract, citing general concerns over the accuracy of the company’s software and its ability to detect concealed weapons.

The delay gave board leadership 30 days to work with the bill’s legislative sponsors to decide how to proceed, though board officials noted at the time that AEGIX met all requirements outlined by law. However, they did not review the contract at their Friday meeting as initially scheduled.

Why the delay?

On Sept. 15, the board issued an explanatory letter to school districts, clarifying the separate purposes of the $72 million allotted for individual school safety projects and the $3 million tentatively planned for the AEGIX contract, emphasizing that the contract had not yet received approval.

That’s because some districts had apparently applied for a piece of the remaining $72 million to be put toward ZeroEyes gun-detection software — a move that board members advised would likely be rejected, because that wasn’t what the remaining money was intended for.

Any districts that applied for such a use would be allowed to amend their plans and resubmit, the board noted, since the letter was dated on the day of the application deadline.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, provided insight into why the letter was sent on Sept. 18, voicing frustration that he believed AEGIX was “leveraging” its contract to secure more than the agreed-upon $3 million.

“I was totally naive to what I’ve come to affectionately refer to as the education industrial complex,” Wilcox said at the time, during an interim School Security Task Force meeting. “We have a contractor that signed an agreement here in Utah that seems to be leveraging that contract to push for way more than what we intended. Nothing even close to $3 million for the state. ... That is not at all what this is for.”

He warned school districts not to enter into any longterm contracts for firearm-detection software.

“If we do that, we’re wasting a lot of money that doesn’t need to be spent, and that will prevent us from being able to accomplish what we need to,” Wilcox said, “and, at the very least, will have cost your [district] money that could be applied elsewhere.”

AEGIX CEO Chet Linton confirmed in a statement that some districts had submitted grants for firearm-detection software, “rather than wait on the specific funding for ZeroEyes” intended under HB61.

He said “more districts in the state than expected” wanted the software. However, ZeroEyes representatives previously told the Salt Lake Tribune that $3 million was enough funding to cover every school in the state.

“Our only role and primary objective is to help Utah schools become safer,” Linton said.

What is ZeroEyes?

ZeroEyes uses artificial intelligence to detect brandished guns, according to the company. It works by layering on top of a school’s existing security cameras.

If the AI software identifies a possible firearm, the company says, images will be sent to a ZeroEyes operations center staffed 24/7 by U.S. military and law enforcement veterans. One center is located outside Philadelphia and another is based in Hawaii.

If staffers determine a threat is valid, they dispatch alerts and information to local school staff and law enforcement in 3-5 seconds, including a visual description, gun type and last known location, according to ZeroEyes.

Utah public schools would be invited to seek grants to install the software, if or when the $3 million contract is approved.

Correction • Oct. 10, 9:55 a.m.: The story has been updated to correct the status of the pending AEGIX Global contract with the Utah State Board of Education.