By MADDY VITALE
School shootings happen in other towns, other communities, other districts far away, but not in Ocean City.
No matter how safe, how prepared a school can be, there is no such thing as too much security.
That is why Ocean City school and city officials purchased a new security software system to add an “extra layer of security.”
In the spring, City Council and the Board of Education approved a shared services agreement for a five-year, $294,000 contract with ZeroEyes Inc., a Conshohocken Pa., company, for gun detection software that uses artificial intelligence.
Police Chief Jay Prettyman discovered the company, got in touch with them and brought the idea back to the city and school district.
Not only has the software been used at all three Ocean City schools for the past few months, but it is also helping to protect people on the Boardwalk from Fifth to 14th Street.
The software has put a national spotlight on Ocean City. ABC News recently featured Ocean City’s partnership with ZeroEyes in a national broadcast.
The ultimate goal, Prettyman said, is for the software to be installed at all public buildings in the city.
He explained why.
“It will reduce our response time and let people know the second they walk in the school or any public building with a firearm. In less than 10 seconds, we will have a full emergency response and a lockdown, if verified, that it is a lethal threat,” Prettyman said in an interview this week.
ZeroEyes’ mission is to “stop mass shootings and gun-related violence,” according to the company’s website https://zeroeyes.com/.
The team at ZeroEyes consists of former military members and former law enforcement officers. They monitor the cameras at Ocean City’s primary, intermediate and high schools for gun detection. They are also looking for threats around the clock on the Boardwalk from Fifth Street to 14th Street.
And according to ZeroEyes, “once a threat is verified, the team will notify appropriate security personnel and first responders in as fast as 3-5 seconds.”
Since the beginning of 2023, the United States has seen more than 30 mass killings, according to published reports.
For Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott McCartney, the software is a necessary “layer of security” and one more tool to keep students and faculty safe.
The Ocean City school district serves Ocean City students as well as students from Sea Isle City, Upper Township, Longport and Corbin City.
“It maximizes the tools we already have and gives us time to implement the procedures we have,” McCartney said in an interview. “Marrying the two things together, it makes for a better security system for our students, our staff and visitors to the school.”
McCartney was an administrator at a Mays Landing elementary school in 1999 when the mass shootings occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“It was such a foreign conversation to have at a staff meeting. Instead of talking about reading, writing and arithmetic, we were talking about the safety of our children,” McCartney recalled of the discussion with staff after the Columbine shootings. “It was just very surreal.”
More than 20 years after Columbine, a lot has changed. School security systems have been greatly improved throughout the country.
But somehow, shooters still manage to get in schools.
Underscoring the safety measures in place in Ocean City, McCartney gave a tour of some of the surveillance cameras in use throughout the high school. They are located inside and outside the building.
The district has a good security system in place and security personnel that man the banks of camera screens. ZeroEyes, McCartney said, just adds that essential piece that was missing — artificial intelligence.
“We hope that it never identifies someone in our school with a weapon who is not a law enforcement officer or somebody delegated to carry a weapon in our schools,” he said. “That’s our first and foremost hope, that we never have to use it.”
In the event that someone does enter the school with the intent to do harm to students or staff, ZeroEyes software can capture it, McCartney added.
“There are going to be places that are a little out of sight of a person, but it might not be out of sight of our cameras,” he said.
Building on technology and safety, the high school is piloting a new security system for visitors in which they have to swipe their licenses.
“If there is anything identifiable, then we could head the problem off at the pass, or if nothing else, we are recording our visitors,” McCartney said. “It helps with management in our buildings.”
The district also utilizes School Pass, a program that not only has all the students swipe their school ID to enter the building, but they also have to use the card to go into the bathrooms. In the near future, the plan is for the students to use it to enter each classroom.
The School Pass software allows the district to know where the students are in the building and record their attendance. In an emergency, when a teacher is doing head counts, it can be a major tool in locating the students, McCartney said.
While ZeroEyes has fortunately not detected any real threats in Ocean City schools or on the Boardwalk to date, both Prettyman and McCartney believe the software is an essential tool to keeping students and the public safe.
McCartney likened the potentially lifesaving software to extra insurance.
“We all have homeowners’ insurance, and we pay for it every year and we hope that we never have to use it, but if we do, we have it,” he said. “This is in some ways, an added insurance for the schools where we hope that we never have to use it, but we have it.”
Prettyman noted that there have been several “non-lethal indications where the software picked up a potential firearm.”
“Most of the time, they were water guns and other toys kids bought on the Boardwalk,” he said.
Both McCartney and Prettyman addressed concerns that some people may have that artificial intelligence could be intrusive or an invasion of one’s privacy.
City and school officials say the software company left them feeling confident that the software is solely for gun detection.
“There are different people with different thoughts about artificial intelligence,” McCartney said. “I would much rather have a conversation with a parent discussing whether the artificial intelligence is violating their personal space or information, which I think the company satisfied us that that is not their intention, than having to pick up the phone and talk to a parent about a tragic event that happened in our schools.”