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Surveillance Tech Didn’t Stop the Uvalde Massacre

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, of which Robb is a member, followed this conventional wisdom and embraced modern security solutions at its schools. Indeed, the district had actually doubled its security budget over the past several years to invest in a variety of recommended precautions.

According to UCISD’s security page, the district employed a safety management system from security vendor Raptor Technologies, designed to monitor school visitors and screen for dangerous individuals. It also used a social media monitoring solution, Social Sentinel, that sifted through children’s online lives to scan for signs of violent or suicidal ideation. Students could download an anti-bullying app (the STOP!T app) to report abusive peers, and an online portal at ucisd.net allowed parents and community members to submit reports of troubling behavior to administrators for further investigation. As has been noted, UCISD also had its own police force, developed significant ties to the local police department, and had an emergency response plan. It even deployed “Threat Assessment Teams” that were scheduled to meet regularly to “identify, evaluate, classify and address threats or potential threats to school security.”

And yet, none of the new security measures seemed to matter much when a disturbed young man brought a legally purchased weapon to Robb and committed the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history. The perpetrator wasn’t a student and therefore couldn’t be monitored by its security systems.

Trolling through students’ online lives to look for signs of danger is now a routine procedure in many districts. In fact, legislators have discussed mandating such surveillance features for schools across the country. UCISD employed one such company, but Gov. Abbott said Wednesday that “there was no meaningful forewarning of this crime.” The shooter sent private messages threatening the attack via Facebook Messenger half an hour before it occurred, but they were private and therefore would have been invisible to outside observers.

Facial recognition is another technology that has been offered to schools as a basic safety mechanism. The number of schools that have adopted face recording solutions has risen precipitously in recent years (Clearview AI announced this week that it has its sights on cracking into the market). However, despite their growing popularity, there is little evidence that these security apparatuses actually do anything to stop school shootings. Even supporters of facial recognition admit that the systems probably won’t do much once a shooter’s on school property.

“Whether it’s facial recognition, monitoring software on school devices, cameras—all these types of surveillance have become extremely ubiquitous,” said Jason Kelley, digital strategist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with Gizmodo. “The companies that sell these tools are trying to do something positive—they’re trying to minimize tragedy,” he said. Yet not only can these products ultimately be ineffective, they can also end up having negative side-effects on the children they’re meant to protect, Kelley offered. The intrusiveness of the tools are such that students may grow up feeling as if they have to be surveilled to be safe—even if the surveillance isn’t actually keeping them safe.

Some studies suggest that what surveillance actually provides is punishment rather than protection. The cameras and software can turn schools into little panopticons, where student behavior is constantly analyzed and assessed, and where minor infractions can be spotted and disciplined.