Selling Fear: The First US School Installs A Shooting Detection System

from the fear-itself dept

If there is one thing that really irritates me more than anything else, it’s when people use fear as a sales tactic. This gives me many opportunities to be pissed off, since fear is commonly used to sell stuff, with varying degrees of depravity: fear to sell warranties, fear to sell wars, fear to sell surveillance on the public, fear to sell political ideology. But using the fear parents have for their children in the wake of tragic school shootings, particularly doing so while outright lying about statistics to scare the hell out of parents even more, just might be the worst of them all. And that brings us to the news that a Massachusetts school has become the first in America to implement a DARPA developed “shooter detection system.”

Authorities fired tester blanks Tuesday in the Methuen, Mass. school, which authorities did not name for security reasons, to demonstrate the Guardian Active Shooter Detection System, which alerts police of gunfire within one second, according to Reuters. Police officers and Democratic congresswoman Niki Tsongas attended the demonstration, but students were not present, as schools were closed for Veteran’s Day.

The technology, which boasts “near zero false alerts,” was developed by Massachusetts-based Shooter Detection Systems, in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a U.S. government’s military technology development arm. The company also worked with a major defense contractor that has deployed thousands of similar gunshot detection systems to war zones.

Congratulations, America. A defense contractor tried to sell you on the idea that our schools are war zones and you bit like a musky on a minnow. The manufacturer’s website, along with most of the accompanying news articles, are filled with statistics all about how school and mass shootings are on the rise. Obviously this serves as evidence that such shooter detection systems are needed. That way, the $100k per school systems can alert authorities when these increasingly common shootings occur. The most common figure you’ll hear from these contractors and in the news is the same one authorities used in buying this detection system: there have been 88 school shootings in America since the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. The claim comes from, an organization dedicated to gun control and safety. And if that statistic sounds shocking to you, there’s a very good reason for that: it’s complete bullshit.

Politifact summarizes this nonsense nicely:

The main reason for the criticism of Everytown’s count is that its definition of “school shooting” is relatively broad. The group’s criteria goes beyond what many people would consider “school shootings” — incidents in which a student or an intruder enters a school and fires at innocent students and staff. For many people, this is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the phrase “school shooting” — an incident such as Sandy Hook or, before it, the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado that left 15 dead, including the shooters.

[’s] definition allows for incidents that don’t typically call to mind the term “school shooting” — for example, a case in which a man unaffiliated with Alogna High/Middle School in Iowa killed himself in the school’s parking lot in the middle of the night, or an early-morning armed robbery on a street that goes through the Marquette University campus in Wisconsin. Both count in Everytown’s tally.

They then tally up the incidents using the common sense school shooting criteria: 10 instances of what we’d actually call school shootings, 39 incidents that were common criminal activity (such as robbery, etc.), 16 cases that occurred outside of school hours by people not affiliated in any way with the school, 6 suicides, and 3 accidental discharges. So, 10 school shootings, as we commonly refer to them, over the past two years. Look, that’s 10 too many, of course, and every instance of gun-related death at a school is a tragedy in its own right, but that stupid, wrong, idiotic 74 shootings statistic (before it was 88 school shootings) was pitched to concerned parents, school officials, and politicians by both a company that has insane amounts of money to gain and a complicit, sensationalistic and lazy mass media and nobody is bothering to tell people that these are lies. If the company is pitching an increase in school shootings as a primary reason for spending six figures per school on their product, what happens when I show you that school shootings are not on the rise?

We asked James Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, for some perspective. He pointed to the 2013 “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There were about 45 school-associated violent deaths (not just by guns) at elementary and secondary schools each year between the 1992 and 2010 school years, according to the report. The highest annual total was 63 deaths in 2006-07, while the lowest was 31 in 2010-11. In other words, Fox said, the number of gun deaths documented by Everytown over the past year and a half are not out of the ordinary. About 15 to 20 kids in grades K-12 are killed at school each year, along with a similar number of college students, he said.

“I don’t mean to minimize the horror of these events or the pain and suffering of victims, but schools are safe, safer than other places that our children spend time,” he said. “For some kids, school is even safer than their home.”

Yet there is the politician, the school officials, and police, marching through a Massachusetts school, firing off blank rounds within the hallways that, if not for Veteran’s Day, would otherwise be filled with young boys and girls, all to test a shooter detection system pitched by a corporation with monied interests on false claims and statistics. That’s on us all for not demanding better from ourselves, our media, and our politicians. We deserve to be bilked this way for allowing the pitchmen of fear to prey on us so easily and for setting aside our skepticism in favor of the more facile emotion of terror.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: shooter detection systems

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Selling Fear: The First US School Installs A Shooting Detection System”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Violynne (profile) says:

$100k system that can do what every phone can do in the same time.

Perhaps the real finger should be to report how police officers failed to respond in a timely manner after multiple 911 calls were made.

I doubt that report exits, considering how well swatting works.

As for being upset to use fear to sell items, it’s the very foundation of democracy. “Vote for me or my opponent will release every child predator captured and raise your taxes!”

Where’s that accursed ELE asteroid. It’s late.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Could be worse

Yes, this is yet another indication of how we have become a nation of mindless cowards. Schools are much safer now than they were when I was a schoolkid, or when my parents were, and (I’m guessing) when my grandparents were. That’s been true for a long while now. And yet, nobody was losing their minds about school safety in those days — because, outside of specific problem schools, they were pretty damn safe even then.

That said, this falls into the “could be worse” category for me. If these systems are used instead of filling the schools with cameras and student-tracking technology, then I would be fine with it on the grounds that it’s just a waste of money but doesn’t count as intrusive surveillance.

Of course, I know better. It will be used in addition to intrusive surveillance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Could be worse

John we’re wired to be mindless cowards unfortunately – something only education, logic training, critical thinking, and bias awareness can overcome. All if which are in very short supply in contemporary America.

Without adequate training and maturity irrational fear overrides logical thinking and rationality so easily that i’m personally amazed we even have a civilization at all. Then again, fear has a way of keeping the populace in line through tools like religion, so maybe it balances out.

(As an aside, in many instances i’d argue that religion has been a great glue for keeping societies together. When you’re afraid of God’s retribution in the afterlife for sins committed here, you tend to be less likely to commit them, which plays a big part in keeping anarchy at bay.)

Here is one of the better articles i’ve read on the subject:

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Could be worse

“Schools are much safer now than they were when I was a schoolkid, or when my parents were, and (I’m guessing) when my grandparents were. That’s been true for a long while now. And yet, nobody was losing their minds about school safety in those days — because, outside of specific problem schools, they were pretty damn safe even then.”

School playground equipment was notoriously dangerous, especially anything with moving parts, though rarely fatally so. Trees were a major source of injury and sometimes death of children, and even today, they rarely if ever have safety nets installed.

Although this didn’t happen at a schoool, it could have just as well. A few years ago where I worked, a big tree limb broke off and fell on a group of employees (mostly contractors) taking a smoke break. (one of the lesser-known dangers of cigarette smoking!) As usual, lawsuits were filed, and insurance companies took hits.

But put into perspective, all these dangers, combined, pale in comparison to traffic accidents. Yet very few people are terrified of getting into a car. Strange.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Look out Band Members all of your instruments will be confiscated as weapons of mass destruction.

Someone’s been re-watching Eagle Eye haven’t they?

Quick summery: AI built by government creates bomb to kill the executive branch because they’re stupid and blow up a lot of people trying to kill terrorists or something. The bomb is set to go off at a concert after an instrument set with a trigger plays a specific note.

So ya… weaponized musical instruments played by your local school band.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

And the numbers...

according to gov fastfacts – 98,817 primary schools; 7,021 secondary for 105,838 – @$100K = $10,583,800,000.00

I’m sure the welfare of the children is worth way more than 10.5 BILLION, isn’t it? How dare you say we’re only in it for the money…

Imagine how many politicians can be bought from THAT profit margin..


mcinsand (profile) says:

using fear to sell

>>If there is one thing that really irritates me more than
>>anything else, it’s when people use fear as a sales

Then you gotta love broadcast and network news! ‘Your water could be killing you! Watch our special at 6 to find out what to do!’ Much of the news promos are basically scare-tactics to make the viewer feel more at risk if he/she doesn’t watch.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: using fear to sell

The media’s coverage of Ebola is a strong indicator that they’re selling fear. There have been 4 cases of Ebola in the US. Only 2 got Ebola while in the US. Only 1 person has died in the US from Ebola.

But from the media coverage, you’d think we were living in the movie 28 Days Later.

Anonymous Coward says:

So how long until some prankster (or even a student with a project on guns/war) plays a sound that mimics a gunshot?
Then we’ll see how true the “near zero false alerts” claim truly stands up in real life.

If this system produces one false positive there’s going to be a shit storm when the police raid a school full of children looking for an armed gunman. You can be sure the police will be on high alert the whole time as well. I shudder to think what might happen if… well do I have to say it?

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: there's going to be a shit storm when the police raid a school

You mean, more of a shit storm than when children are killed by somebody with a gun?

There seems to be about one school shooting a month in the US, yet people have become remarkably blasé about that. You think that police wasting their time on false alarms will lead to some decent outrage, for a change?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: there's going to be a shit storm when the police raid a school

That’s just media distortion, though (we hear about every single such incident, but assume that we’re only hearing about a small number of them).

Statistically, the percentage of students who are injured or killed due to violent incidents in schools has been a few orders of magnitude lower than ever before. This started being true prior to the militarization of the schools.

Elliot...Just a tech says:

Re: How it works...

Actually, the chances of a false positive are pretty slim from what I’ve been told. We had a security walk-thru and this system was mentioned.

The way it works it by sound & sight. So you need the report from the firearm, plus the muzzle flash.

I asked, what if someone came in quiet with a suppressor? It would reduce the effective range of the sensor, but you still need to satisfy BOTH conditions to trigger an alert.

The BANG & the FLASH.

Anonymous Coward says:

Suppose it works. So WHAT?

As we’ve seen, police cannot possibly respond fast enough to prevent mass casualties IF the shooter(s) intends to create them and IF they’re heavily armed, competent and determined.

Moreover, a fair number of these shooters don’t care if they survive — so even if police respond (relatively) quickly, even if they quickly and correctly locate the shooter(s), even if they have a clear line of fire, even if they aren’t shot first, even if they have the marksmanship to hit the shooters — by the time all of that happens, a bunch of kids will be wounded or dead anyway.

This is all presuming, by the way, that the shooter’s first act isn’t to disable the gunshot detector.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Authorities fired tester blanks Tuesday in the Methuen, Mass. school, which authorities did not name for security reasons

Even this sentence is selling the fear. Never mind that security via obscurity pretty much does not work fore things like this, the mere assertion here is ridiculous. There will be people in that town who can look back and think, “Oh, that was what was going on there.” And if not, one could always take a wild stab. The population in 2010 was 47.3k. And just how many schools are there?,_Massachusetts#Education Yeah OK, no one who had some sort of interest would ever figure it out.

Hm. The high school was renovated this summer. There’s a nice video on the town site that probably gives away TOP SEEKRIT building layout information. They might want to obscure that. Don’t tell me it’s about pride or just something basically interesting, it’s sabotage. Someone better root out the damn fifth columnists.

DannyB (profile) says:

Is this really the best use of taxpayer money?

Are school shootings really our number one concern? What about sexting? Wouldn’t it be a better use of taxpayer resources to set up fake singray cell phone spoofers in all schools and residential areas near schools in order to find and prosecute kiddies who engage in sexting?

Oh, wait. Nevermind.

We don’t have to give up on one for the other. We can spend money on both shooting detection systems and singray systems to find sexters.

And as a bonus, the singray systems can also find if kids say unkind things about teachers or school faculty so that they can be punished.

OK, carry on.

Anonymous Coward says:

near zero false alerts

“Authorities fired tester blanks…”

If it triggered on blanks…isn’t that a false alert…?

I feel much better about my children’s safety since the police “will be alerted within one second” …

Meanwhile in reality : “Secret Service officer chatted on cell phone as intruder scaled White House fence”

Geno0wl (profile) says:

How is this any better?

$100,000 for a system that is WORSE than an army of kids with cell phones?
Are you telling me the instant gun fire is heard there will not be 50 people calling 911?
I would call you a liar and/or fool if you think those 5-15 extra seconds between this system(assuming it could cover the whole school) and those kids dialing 911 could possibly justify the expenditure of this money.
Let alone the extra cost of upkeep of this system on both the school side and the LEO side.
This is a massive failure all the way around.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The technology, which boasts “near zero false alerts,” “

This is probably the most concerning statement. The current rate of a shooting at a school is about 0.0094% per year (based on school numbers from a previous poster and the article). The false alarm rate is almost assuredly higher. This means armed SWAT teams are that much more likely to bust into the school based on an automated alarm.

Certainly this system is not actually improving safety of it causes an increase in the likelihood of armed men running through the school.

Anonymous Coward says:

The biggest question here is, how does the system do anything to PREVENT the shooting? So the shot was detected, and the police made aware within 1 second. From that moment until the police arrive anything could happen. By this time, the shooting is all done and over with, we are left with a $100K debt in our hand and, on top of it all, the injuries/death left behind.

Just one more to add to the statistic/database to justify …

Uriel-238 says:

Re: Re: The Cover-Your-Own-Ass Society

Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry.
Better safe than sorry….

That One Guy (profile) says:

Dirt cheap alternative:

Fire extinguishers.

Someone put together a rather long post about how simply equipping each classroom with fire extinguishers would make for an excellent, relatively cheap anti-shooter system.

Think about it, someone busts into a classroom with a gun, you hose them down with one of those, they’re going to be blinded, they’re going to be choking, but what they aren’t going to be is able to aim, or even likely fire at all, giving the teacher or someone else time to clock the would-be gunman over the head with the canister, or incapacitate them in another fashion.

Best of all, they’d serve double-duty in case a fire broke out(which is much more likely to happen than someone shooting up a classroom), so even if they were never used to stop a gunman, they’d still serve an important purpose.

John85851 (profile) says:

Reaction time?

Okay, so the police are notified within a second or two of the shooting.
How does this system reduce the police reaction time? Even assuming the SWAT team is sitting around, fully prepared, to jump into action, it will still take them 5 or 10 (or 15 or 20) minutes to get to the school.
Or does this system come with a Star Trek style transporter to get the SWAT team to the school instantly? If so, we should give them a Nobel Award in Physics for making such a device.

But how come no one in any step in the process thought about the police reaction time?
Or do we have to wait for the inevitable story in 5 or 10 years where a shooter kills 20 people even though this system worked normally and alerted the police “within a second”, but the police weren’t prepared and didn’t show up until an hour later?

Then again, what are the chances of a school shooting in that county? What are the chances of a school shooting in a school with this system?

Leopold says:

Not that outrageous . . .

How often is there a fire at a school? They are quite rare. And yet we have fire alarms and sprinkler systems. Should we get rid of those due to irrational fear?

And with respect to response time: You’d be amazed at how long it takes people to decide that the loud noise they heard really was the report of a firearm. It never happens, so people are not prepared when it does. They stick their head out the door to “see what that noise was”. If there is a single report (as opposed to multiple reports), its possible someone assumes it was something that fell.

Then when someone DOES call on a cell phone, they are all panicked. The dispatcher often has to work very hard trying to extract vital information such as what happened, where it happened, etc. This system can inform the PD: shot fired, Baker School, 1 Main St., cafeteria. That’s a lot of information to try to extract from a panicked caller. They may have heard a shot, but not know it was the cafeteria. I realize situations are fluid, but sometimes not. If there was a gunshot in the cafeteria, that’s probably the first place the PD should go. Someone might be injured and that’s the first place you should look.

I am concerned about false positives though. If we have 10 school shootings per year, but this system reports 1000 false positives per year if installed nationwide, it would be doing more harm than good.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...