Begin by understanding that school districts in America have little control over the environments in which they operate.
They have no say over the zoning ordinances and market forces that lead to the growth or decline in school-age populations. Thus some school districts are planting new schools just about as fast as they can, while others are going through the painful process of deciding which schools to close.
Public schools that are, by definition, open to all have no control over the students who come through their doors. No say in whether those children have been fed, bathed, read to, helped with their homework, heard English spoken at home, witnessed or suffered abuse, changed addresses three times in the course of a school term — or even have an address.
And when it comes to a basic responsibility of any school — providing a safe environment for students to learn and teachers to teach — school boards have no control over whether the society that surrounds them is riddled with high-power firearms. Whether they live a culture where any attempt to limit the availability of weapons of war is shouted down as some kind of assault on basic freedoms.
So the Salt Lake City School District is pouring some $2.6 million into equipment and staff to provide what they hope is an effective, artificial-intelligence-driven system to keep guns and other weapons out of its high schools.
Such a system would have done nothing to prevent the assaults on American schools that cause us lasting pain. In each case, no weapons were being surreptitiously spirited into a classroom. It was always someone crashing through the door, high-powered weapons blazing.
Still, the school board wants to do something — anything — to avoid being the site of America’s next horrific school shooting. And, understanding that Utah’s political class will never do anything to limit the availability of the killing implements that have devastated schools from Colorado to Connecticut to Texas to Florida, they have decided to take a sad step to electronically wall-off their high schools from the communities they are a part of.
If the worst does happen, on a scale small or large, the district will at least be able to answer the ensuing lawsuits with the factual argument that they made some effort to keep guns out.
It is now the responsibility of the district, and the community, to keep a watch on how the system works in the real world. Other districts should take a long look before deciding to copy this plan. Or, in the case of the overly micromanaging Utah Legislature, before they move to either mandate or ban them.
By now the new weapon-detecting systems should be operational at Salt Lake City’s three high schools — East, West and Highland — with a similar system to be installed at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center yet this fall.
The system, leased for the next four years from an outfit called Stone Security LLC, uses machines from Evolv Technology. The technology has had mixed results in other places it has been rolled out, reportedly being particularly bad at sniffing out knives.
But system advocates promise that its artificially intelligent brains will be able to detect most weapons, or parts of weapons, that students or others might be trying to smuggle in in backpacks, gym bags or violin cases.
Except that, so far, it doesn’t handle one of the most common items found in a high-schooler’s possession — a laptop computer. Those will have to be handed around the system’s detectors. Which is not an encouraging detail.
Rigging high schools with machines that are designed to sniff into students’ private possessions is not a welcoming or trusting gesture. Before the Salt Lake City schools decide to stick with the plan — and certainly before any other districts decide to buy their own Evolv systems — we are going to need a lot of testing and oversight.
We need ongoing tests to see if real weapons brought into schools are, indeed, flagged, tests carried out by experts independent of both the district and the contractors.
And a system that issues a dozen false alarms every day will be more trouble than it is worth. Students will learn to evade it, and administrators will have to let them.
And, every so often, ask the students what they think.
And all of us, as we weigh the costs and benefits of transforming schools from welcoming community centers into hard targets, should realize that such a system would have done nothing — utterly, absolutely nothing — to stop the massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman or Robb Elementary.
In each case, no stealth was intended or performed.
So, yes, we’ve spent the money, so let us see how these systems work.
But leave us not fool ourselves. They will do nothing to make America a place where people don’t have to fear one another, not as long as our elected officials are eager to make war on TikTok and cower in fear of the NRA.