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Manatee County schools will spend $1.4 million on weapon detection screeners

Firearms detection systems will be placed at each high school and randomly at middle schools starting in August.

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Starting on the first day of school Aug. 12, every high school student in the School District of Manatee County will need to walk through a weapons detection system each day to enter campus. 

Much like the security screeners at Disney World or the Tampa Bay Rays stadium, students simply will walk through the Evolv Express Unit. 

The School District of Manatee County will have the Evolv Express systems at every high school as an added security enhancement as well as to deter anyone from bringing a weapon to school. 

Paul Damico, the chief officer of safety and security for the School District of Manatee County, said the district decided to pursue a security enhancement like the screener after a gun went off at a spring football game at Palmetto High School in May 2022. 

The gunshot occurred when a fight broke out among teens inside the stadium near the home bleachers. No one was injured in the incident, but players, coaches, staff and fans fled the field and bleachers. The Palmetto Police they later discovered two handguns that had been brought to the stadium in that incident. 

The School District of Manatee County will have Evolv Express Units at each high school as an added security measure.
Courtesy image

“We could have prevented that with this system,” Damico said. 

The district began implementing a screening protocol and a clear bag policy at every football game. 

Damico said although it’s not often, there have been instances throughout the district in which a gun was found on campus. He said the guns found were unloaded.

The School District of Manatee County piloted the Evolv Express screeners randomly at each of the district’s seven high schools. Damico said the district tested two high schools per week.

“The kids, the parents, everybody seemed to like the idea because they felt safer,” Damico said. 

Michael Barber, the director of communications, family and community engagement for the district, said students adjusted to the security enhancement well and the process was efficient.

Damico said a gun was recovered during the pilot period as a student refused to walk through the screener. After an inspection, a handgun was found. 

Damico said the successful run of the pilot program gave the district the confidence to move forward with implementing the system at every high school starting in the 2024-2025 school year. 

“It’s about keeping everyone as safe as possible while still having a great school climate that is conducive to learning,” Damico said. 

The district is hopeful that implementing the weapons detection system will result in the reduction in security false alarms at middle and high school levels from approximately 40% to less than 10%. 

The district ordered 18 Evolve Express Units, which totaled nearly $1.4 million for a four-year lease. Damico said every student and campus visitor will go through the screener upon entering campus. 

Damico said the machines will help students, faculty feel safer on campus as well as limit the need for time consuming safety and security checks, such as bag searches.

Damico said the screeners also will be used randomly at public high school events, including football games, concerts and theater productions. 

The Evolv Express Unit uses ultraviolet rays to draw a red thermal imagery line and uses artificial intelligence to detect a potential weapon. 

Students will need to take their Chromebooks out of their backpacks but shouldn’t have to take any other items out of their backpacks as they walk through the machines. 

People will need to take umbrellas out if they are attending a public event. 

If the screener detects anything, a red light will go off and the person will need to step aside to a table and have the bag searched. A guardian, who is an armed security officer the district has hired, also will use a security wand to check the person. 

Damico said the district is hiring more guardians to man the screeners as well as security supervisors to oversee the guardians. 

Buddy, an English pointer, can detect firearms at a distance. The School District of Manatee County will randomly dispatch Buddy to schools throughout the school year.
Courtesy image

Damico said students will not be late to class as a result of having to go through the system before entering campus. According to the Evolv website, the machines can screen up to 4,000 people per hour. 

The district also will have screeners randomly rotating around the middle schools as a test run to help students prepare to go through the system every day in high school. 

Damico said there is a possibility the district will add Evolv Express systems to middle schools in the future.

On top of the Evolv Express machines, the district will have a firearms detection canine to screen students and visitors for firearms. Damico said Buddy, the 8-month-old English pointer, will randomly rotate among the high schools. 

He said Buddy has finished training and will start working with the district during the summer. Buddy will be positioned at the front of the school, and he will not do bag searches or interior searches unless a threat has been detected. 

“Kids can see him and he’s friendly,” Damico said of Buddy. “He could smell a firearm from a good distance away, according to the trainers.” 



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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