NEWARK -- Bay Area technology company SST unveiled Monday a gunshot detection system for schools that they hope helps police respond faster in the case of mass shootings such as the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre or smaller incidents, but privacy advocates elicited concerns about the surveillance technology.
A handful of schools, including one Oakland charter school, plan to begin using a new version of the gunfire alert technology ShotSpotter, which can detect gunshots and pinpoint the exact location and time a bullet is fired inside a large building, according to executives from SST, the Newark-based company behind ShotSpotter. Schools now have access to the same gunshot detection technology that has been hailed by law enforcement across the country for helping police solve violent crimes.
However, the proposal to add surveillance technology inside schools has set off alarms among privacy advocates, and promises to create consternation in school districts that must balance safety with dwindling budgets.
"Expanding the use of ShotSpotter technology to include school campuses could carry the cost of jeopardizing ... our privacy rights," said Jory Steele, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
ShotSpotter has been used for years by Oakland and East Palo Alto police, but the surveillance system has only been outdoors -- in parks and on building rooftops. During the next few weeks, schools will begin adding ShotSpotter's SiteSecure system to their classrooms and hallways as part of a pilot program, said Ralph Clark, SST president and chief executive officer.
"Sandy Hook was a bit of a wake-up call for the country," he said.
According to sources familiar with the pilot, Oakland School for the Arts has agreed to be among the first to use ShotSpotter. The performing arts charter school, which has about 600 students on a small campus in downtown Oakland, did not immediately respond to phone calls.
The pilot will last two to three months and a full-scale launch will take place early next year, when Oakland School for the Arts and other pilot schools would begin paying about $10,000 a year for the technology service.
Clark says ShotSpotter SiteSecure will improve emergency crews' response time to a school shooting. Often, in mass shootings, several minutes pass before authorities are notified — Newtown police got the call six minutes after a gunman began shooting his way through Sandy Hook Elementary last year.
"People who are in a position to know that it's a real gunshot aren't thinking about calling 911," Clark said. "They're thinking about running for cover, hiding themselves. The people who aren't directly in harm's way really don't know whether it's a gunshot or not."
ShotSpotter audio sensors -- small computers with microphones that record and time stamp a certain sound -- detect gunshots and similar sounds and alert the SST lab in Newark, where analysts work round-the-clock.
"We make sure everyone knows what a gunshot sounds like, what a firecracker sounds like, what other sounds they might hear," said Jaimee Tassio, manager at SST's Newark lab.
When there is a gunshot, police are alerted, and ShotSpotter can tell them the number of shooters and shots fired, the location of the shooters and the type of gun. ShotSpotter can also alert other security systems, such as automatic door locks and text messages. The whole process takes 30 to 45 seconds.
"Every minute counts in an active shooter situation," Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said. "There is still room for improvement ... to respond quickly and put an end to the threat."
Clark also plans to bring the technology to malls, universities and airports. ShotSpotter will use digital mapping software application so emergency responders will know the building layout, room sizes and locations of doors and windows.
ShotSpotter has transformed the way some law enforcement agencies respond to gun violence, alerting police to gunfire and leading them directly to the scene of the shooting more accurately than 911 calls. Police say the recordings have helped them solve murders and can be a deciding piece of evidence in court cases. ShotSpotter works with about 80 cities, including six in the Bay Area.
"Officers were going in blind," Oakland Police Capt. Ersie Joyner said. "But now we have a specific area to go to, we're actually finding casing, we're actually finding misfired guns, we're actually finding blood."
ShotSpotter's outdoor gunshot detection system helped solve a 2007 Oakland murder when the technology captured a dying man's last words that identified the killer. ShotSpotter also took a lead role in a high-profile Massachusetts case in which sensors recorded a street argument that accompanied a fatal shooting in 2011.
But the same detail in ShotSpotter recordings that has made the technology an asset in crime solving also poses a threat to civil liberties, some privacy advocates say.
"This technology too often records many sounds beyond gunshots, and has been used in the past by police to record private conversations without a warrant," said Steele of the ACLU.
ShotSpotter officials say they no long release audio recordings to police that occur more than four seconds before or after the gunshot. And the acoustic sensors for schools can only detect gunshots or noises that produces a similar noise and heat, such as a firework. .
"There is no way it can record voices," Clark said. "It is just not possible technically."
Yet some privacy advocates worry that adding more surveillance systems will create schools that feel like prisons.
Steele said ShotSpotter could "exacerbate the over-policing of our schools" which are already watched by police and surveillance cameras.
Privacy concerns are just one reason some Oakland Unified School Board members say they would be reluctant to add ShotSpotter to schools. The other is cost -- implementing ShotSpotter throughout Oakland Unified is approximately $1 million per year. That doesn't include the one-time fee of about $15,000 per school, although the price varies depending on school size.
"I'm really concerned about safety, but I could take that money and invest in security officers," Oakland school board member Ann Campbell Washington said. Contact with adult role models "ultimately is going to be what helps kids more than metal detectors and gun shooting detection technology."
The initial rejection by some Oakland board members suggests the hurdles Clark may face as he tries to convince cash-strapped districts and school boards beholden to their constituents.
Others have tried before him. Following most high-profile school shootings, many companies have tried to sell schools technology that may have never have been intended for a school setting, said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services.
"In most cases these vendors ... quickly find their product pitches falling upon deaf ears," he said.
In the past three decades, there have been 11 school shootings, including at universities, in which at least four people were killed. Last month, a teacher in Nevada was killed by a 12-year-old who open fired at a middle school.
The new ShotSpotter solution comes as Oakland tries to beat back a surge in violent crimes. In 2012, murder, burglary and robbery reached their highest point in five years, earning the city the No. 3 ranking among most dangerous U.S. cities. About 80 homicides have been reported this year.
While rampant on the streets, though, gun violence hasn't entered the public schools.
"What is the threat?" Campbell Washington asked. "There is a lot of gun violence in the community, but it's not in the schools."
Still, Oakland students don't have to look far. In April 2012, a shooting spree killed seven students and injured three at Oikos University, a private Christian school in Oakland. In May 2011, three people were killed on the campus of San Jose State.
ShotSpotter may not have changed those events, but Clark said likens the technology to fire alarms -- they don't stop a fire but they can often alert the fire department to a problem more quickly than people. OUSD budgets show the district spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on routine fire alarm upgrades, yet no student has died from a fire at school in the past 25 years, according to the Firefighter Support Foundation. Clark also advocates schools hiring more counselors and educating parents about safe gun storage at home.
"If there's more energy spent on that," he said, "they might decide they don't need an indoor gunshot detection capability either."
And, he said, he's fine with that.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.