Schools Are Using 'Aggression Detecting' Mics That Are Set Off By Coughing, Slamming Locker Doors To Head Off The Next School Shooting

from the pour-more-money-into-the-stuff-that-isn't-working dept

Schools are spending more and more money on safety. Or, at least, that’s what they’re saying they’re spending the money on. But simply adding more layers of surveillance — on campus and off — isn’t really doing much to make schools safer.

Preventing violence at schools is a noble goal, but many of the solutions are just repackaged law enforcement products that treat campuses as high-crime areas. The latest developments being pitched to schools aren’t innovative. They’re just another way to help administrators view students as persons of interest in crimes yet to be determined.

This might not be as problematic if the tools worked well. But they simply don’t. ProPublica took some repurposed ShotSpotter-esque tech for a spin, only to find out it doesn’t work as advertised. The idea is the microphones will pick up aggressive… um… noises and head off the next school shooter. Great in theory. In practice?

Ariella Russcol specializes in drama at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, New York, and the senior’s performance on this April afternoon didn’t disappoint. While the library is normally the quietest room in the school, her ear-piercing screams sounded more like a horror movie than study hall. But they weren’t enough to set off a small microphone in the ceiling that was supposed to detect aggression.

A few days later, at the Staples Pathways Academy in Westport, Connecticut, junior Sami D’Anna inadvertently triggered the same device with a less spooky sound — a coughing fit from a lingering chest cold. As she hacked and rasped, a message popped up on its web interface: “StressedVoice detected.”

“There we go,” D’Anna said with amusement, looking at the screen. “There’s my coughs.

Good to know a student’s coughing fit may find them staring down the business end of whatever weapon the school resource officer chooses to “reasonably” deploy in the face of certain danger. AggressionSpotter doesn’t seem to be up to the task of providing school staff with a heads up. The company behind the tech — Louroe Electronics — pitches this to law enforcement and school administrators as being the tool they need to head off “antagonistic individuals” before it escalates into something that injures or kills students.

The problem is every product tested by ProPublica can’t actually do what it says on the tin. When lives are on the line, aggression detectors are being set off by famous people with grating voices.

Our research found that [Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector] tends to equate aggression with rough, strained noises in a relatively high pitch, like D’Anna’s coughing. A 1994 YouTube clip of abrasive-sounding comedian Gilbert Gottfried (“Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”) set off the detector, which analyzes sound but doesn’t take words or meaning into account.

So much for the future. This is the AI used by Louroe, which can be set off by Gilbert Gottfried bits while ignoring students screaming.

Louroe’s attempt to win back some points by touting its privacy protections falls flat as well. The company claims the software only captures aggressive “sound patterns.” What the company calls “sound patterns” is actually students speaking. And those recordings can be stored indefinitely by administrators, allowing them to replay conversations overhead by Louroe’s mics.

The company behind the software at least seems a bit more pragmatic. Sound Intelligence CEO Derek van der Vorst acknowledged the fact that the tech will generate lots of false positives and probably won’t prevent a “crazy loony” from shooting up a school. Still, he insists better safe than sorry, even when it seems “sorry” is the more likely outcome.

As is to be expected, this growth industry began as cop tech. Sound Intelligence’s first deployments were by European law enforcement agencies.

It tested an early model in a Dutch “pub district,” according to a 2007 study co-authored by a company researcher. Microphones were placed in 11 locations in inner-city Groningen, and the detector’s findings were compared with police reports of aggressive behavior. The results were “so impressive,” the study reported, that the device was considered “indispensable” by several Dutch police departments, the Dutch railway company and two prisons.

If you’re looking for analogies, Sound Intelligence has provided one for you. The difference between schools and prisons is the bell at the end of the day. Schools are loading up with surveillance tech to keep an eye on troublesome inmates, using toys battle-tested on literal prisoners.

Settings can be tweaked and a lot of early adopters are finding the presets to be useless. ProPublica reports schools have had the gunshot detector triggered by slammed locker doors and loud birthday wishes.

Deployment in other venues has been just as error-prone, making one wonder how low Dutch law enforcement sets the bar for “indispensable.”

The software has been less effective at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Daniel Coss, security chief for the hospital’s health system, said he’s phasing out the detector after a three-year, $22,000 pilot program. The devices — placed in public, “high risk” areas — had been set off by patients’ loud voices and cafeteria workers slamming cash registers closed. Once the detector was tweaked to be less sensitive, it ignored an agitated man who was screaming and pounding on a desk. The situation escalated until six security officers responded.

This is what educators are relying on to keep kids safe and, hopefully, head off the next mass shooting. The tech simply isn’t up to it. While schools continue to beta test software and hardware using tax dollars, students are being inured to round-the-clock surveillance. The excuse is “safety,” as it always is when surveillance programs ramp up. But there’s no trade off to be made here, not when the tech can’t pinpoint aggression and fails to recognize clear signals like screaming as signs of imminent danger.

I understand no school administrator wants to feel like they didn’t try everything they could when the worst case scenario occurs, but using students as guinea pigs for unproven tech originally developed for prisons isn’t the answer.

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Companies: sound intelligence

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Comments on “Schools Are Using 'Aggression Detecting' Mics That Are Set Off By Coughing, Slamming Locker Doors To Head Off The Next School Shooting”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Only effective after the fact

Like cameras, devices like these are for investigative purposes rather than prevention (recordings the police would need a warrant for). The only time they work in prevention is if a perpetrator is intent upon not getting caught, then the presence of such devices, in a conspicuous manner, do make some sense. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the case with those folks who have caused havoc in schools. At least so far.

JoeCool (profile) says:


Deployment in other venues has been just as error-prone, making one wonder how low Dutch law enforcement sets the bar for "indispensable."

It’s all in how you interpret it. They mean indispensable as in a new toy they just GOTTA have (at the taxpayer dollar). We (the public) would prefer it mean helpful in doing the job they’re being paid to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Safer Schools ??

The scale of school-safety preparedness efforts is way out of proportion to the actual risk of gun violence at schools.

The school shootings body-count since 1999 is remarkably low, in relative terms.
Schools are actually quite safe generally, but irrational fears and emotional responses seem to rule school bureaucracies.

Deaths from shootings on school grounds remain extremely rare compared with deaths resulting from accidental injury — which is the leading cause of death for children and teenagers. Vehicle crashes and school children hit by vehicles are a much higher risk factor. So are fires, drownings, and cancer.

Prioritizing actual risks to children is a better way to allocate preventative resources.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: JoeCool is right

Deploying a military garrison in our schools might make them safer at some point.

However is it worth a try? We already have data that says it generates false alarms, and that it doesn’t go off on some real problem situations. That being the case, people are more likely to ignore it, even if it did correctly detect a problem. AKA it’s worse than useless.

SirWired says:

Yeah, that's gonna end well...

When I was a little kid, the PTA paid for this stoplight-like device for the school cafeteria, meant to keep noise down. (Notably, the music room was on the other side of a movable wall from the cafeteria.)

It would display Green if all was well, Yellow, accompanied by loud beeping, as a warning, and after five seconds of that, a Bzzzzt!!! followed by red for a minute. Other than the lights and sound, it presented no deterrent value.

Naturally, on the very first day, it became a game of getting it to bounce back and forth between green and yellow, and of course it occasionally went red.

I think it went in on Monday, and was gone by Thursday. I suspect nobody ever bought the thing; the vendor simply made money "renting" it by continually charging restocking fees when the fool thing was completely ineffective.

Anonymous Coward says:

Okay, what kind of school did the guys at Louroe attend? Because if aggressive, stressed voices are what trigger their alarm systems they must have been attending a fucking holiday resort.

Nobody thought that students could express frustration? Or teachers, headmasters might be giving someone else an infuriated dressing-down? What about rigorous sports or jocks being… jocks?

Does Louroe believe school to be a place where stress, aggression and other arguably negative experiences and reactions just flat out don’t happen?

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Anal AI

I bet the schools would be in the market for an Anal AI probe that would detect excessive clamping, indicating aggression. Every student would have to wear one, of course.

Can’t always detect, of course; for example, if the shooter goes before he starts.

Also, false positives may occur if the teacher withholds a hall pass. Ater which, of course, the school resource officer may literally scare the s**t out of the presumed miscreant.

But, hey, better safe than sorry.

Some doubters might object that there are things schools won’t do to protect the children. But there is no sign of any restraint yet. We’ll just put, "Better sae than sorry!" in the brochure; then Anal AI should sell like hotcakes.

Slow Joe Crow (profile) says:

So future mass shooters just have to add speak quietly to their checklist along with acquire guns and ammunition 6 months in advance. Also as with Shotspotter, create diversionary noises to send the school resource officer on a snipe hunt.
If you want to really get diabolical, create audio of a fake shooting to trigger an evacuation or lockdown then take advantage of it.

John85851 (profile) says:

We have to do something

When you mentioned the fact the a screaming drama student won’t set off the detectors, it reminded me of this dialog from "The Naked Gun":
Frank Drebin: When I see 3 guys in togas stabbing a man to death on front of 200 people, I had to do something.
Police Commissioner: Frank, they were doing a production of Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar" in Central Park.

That scene was meant as comedy, but it seems like way too people want to "do something" to be "better safe than sorry"… including companies with near-worthless products that take advantage of people like this.

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