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In an Era of Weapons, Districts Fighting Metal With Metal

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Students at Chester High School south of Philadelphia have been late to their homeroom classes this month because of a logistical problem born of the times.

All 1,600 of Chester's students must pass through a metal detector at the building's front entrance.

The school board voted last month to install the device at the inner-city school because of a gun found in a student's locker last year.

The incident had touched off persistent rumors that the drug problem in the school's immediate neighborhood had made the building an armed fortress.

The idea for the metal detector came from parents, said Jessie B. Powell, the school's principal. And though she did not initially believe it was necessary, she said, the first month's experience has convinced her that "it's a deterrent."

The Pennsylvania district is one of several--including the populous Duval County system in Florida--that have recently turned to metal detectors as a way to curb real or potential school violence.

Their moves come even as questions about the legality of metal-detector searches continue to plague the Detroit school system, which in 1985 became the first district in the nation to employ them on a widespread basis.

Principals at six Jackson County, Fla., high schools began using hand-held metal detectors this month to search students suspected of carrying a weapon.

And in Florida's Duval County, school officials set up a trial program this month of random searches with hand-held detectors at several of the system's 144 schools. The school board will vote whether to adopt a systemwide policy on detector use at its March 21 meeting.

And other districts, including the Dade County, Fla., schools, have been looking into the idea, as reports of guns in the schools and other serious discipline problems proliferate.

Violence Said Increasing

Despite calls for an updated sta4tistical profile of violence in the schools, the most recent national survey remains the 1978 study conducted by the National Institute of Education. It estimated that an average of 200,000 children are assaulted or attacked in schools each month.

Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the U.S. Justice Department's National School Safety Center, located at Pepperdine University, said last week that school violence is "continuing at or above those excessive levels."

A Center for Education Statistics study of four unnamed cities showed that, in the largest city, the reported cases of weapons possession on school grounds increased from 200 in 1975 to 1,500 in 1985.

In Los Angeles, officials say that 935 students were reported for carrying a weapon to school during the 1983-84 school year, a figure that was up 10 percent from the previous year.

In New York City, officials reported 1,495 incidences of weapons possession in the schools during the 1986-87 school year, about the same as the previous year.

Edward Muir, chairman of the United Federation of Teachers' school-safety committee, said the concern is not so much over the number of weapons as the type. During the past year, he said, there have been reports of students carrying .357 magnums, sawed-off shotguns, and even an Uzi machine gun.

Called a Logical Step

Mr. Stephens of the school-safety center said administrators have tried a variety of policies to keep guns and knives out of schools, including the removal of student lockers and prohibitions against students carrying any kind of book bag into the building.

To some, he and others note, using metal detectors to spot weapons--just as airports do--seemed a logical preventive measure.

But the American Civil Liberties Union does not agree. It holds that searching a student without any suspicion of wrongdoing is a violation of constitutional rights, and it has lodged court challenges to the practice in Detroit.

The difference between using metal detectors in schools and in airports, aclu officials said last week, is that while travelers can choose whether to fly or not to fly, children are mandated by law to go to school.

"Setting up metal detectors is a flashy, showy way that school officials have to show the public that they are doing something about school violence," said Howard Simon, executive director of the Detroit chapter of the aclu "This kind of policy is a poor substitute for effective discipline."

A better way, said Mr. Simon, is more stringent punishment for students who are caught with weapons.

A Matter of Rights

Others are convinced, however, that the basic student-rights question concerning the use of detectors is the right to attend school in a safe environment.

Jack Adams, security director for the Duval County schools, said the system's policy of random "pat down" searches resulted in the confiscation of 60 firearms during the 1986-87 school year.

So far this year, 45 have been found through that method. And since officials began this month to use the hand-held metal detectors, two guns have been found.

Before widening the trial program, however, school-board members want to assure that students' rights will not be violated, Mr. Adams said. If the metal detectors are used permanently, he pointed out, they will most likely only be used on students who are suspected of carrying a weapon.

The Legal Questions

Like most of those considering the use of metal detectors, Duval County officials turned to Frank Blount, chief of security for the Detroit schools, for advice.

Soon after that system's metal-detector policy was initiated, it faced a lawsuit filed by the aclu on behalf of a female student who claimed, according to its lawyer, that she was "intrusively searched physically by a security guard" after she set off the metal detector.

Mr. Blount said that no final ruling has been made in the Detroit case, but the school system has been ordered to modify its policy on using the detectors.

The court cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 1984 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., which established that school officials may search students only when they have "reasonable grounds for suspecting" that the search will turn up evidence of a violation of law or of school policy.

The Detroit security chief now conducts surprise searches of entire schools when there is reason to believe that some disturbance may be imminent, such as a gang fight.

The stand-up metal detectors, which are portable, are brought to the school. Two lines are formed--of male and female students--and all walk through the detectors.

Any hand searches conducted as a consequence of the detector drill take place in a separate "holding room." Evidence found is turned over to the police.

'Just Another Deterrent'

According to Mr. Blount, students are fully cooperative throughout the procedure, and often "demand that metal-detector searches be done.''

Fewer weapons have been found using the detectors than were found when random pat-down searches were the only method used, he said, adding that it means fewer weapons are being brought to school.

"No one's going to walk through a metal detector carrying a weapon,'' he said.

"Everybody thinks metal detectors are the be-all and end-all," Mr. Blount added. "But it's just another deterrent. It's not a pleasant thing, but it's one of the many things you have to do to bring to the attention of people that you have a problem."

Despite the changes in its policy, however, Detroit may end up in court again soon, according to Mr. Simon. Another student has asked the aclu to take on her case.

A pair of scissors was found on the girl when she was searched with a metal detector, according to the aclu lawyer.

The student claimed the scissors were for an art class, and that the teacher had requested that she bring them to school.

But, according to Mr. Simon, the student was not allowed to verify her story with the teacher. Instead, she was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and she spent a night in jail. The aclu is considering her case, he said.

'Not the Gestapo'

Ironically, the nation's two largest urban districts, New York City and Los Angeles, have not seriously considered the use of metal detectors. Mr. Muir of the uft said school officials in New York have "philosophical, legal, and logistical problems with it--but it's mostly logistics."

In Detroit, said Mr. Blount, officials are considering installing permanent metal detectors at school entrances, but so far have not been able to work out the logistics of how to seal off other entrances and windows.

But Mr. Simon of the aclu said the Supreme Court's decision in the T.L.O. case would not allow the use of doorway metal detectors.

"There's no way to search a large number of citizens--none of whom are suspected of doing anything wrong--and make that nice or constitutional," he said.

In Philadelphia, Ms. Powell said the morning delays at Chester High are an example of the logistical problems doorway detectors present. Two or three staff members must man the machine each morning to monitor students who set off the alarm.

But the apparently broad community support for using detectors in Philadelphia and Florida leads school officials there to believe they will not be challenged legally.

Harold T. Smith, superintendent of the Chester-Upland district in which the Pennsylvania school is located, said that support would persist "as long as we can impress upon people that this is a preventive measure--that we're not the Gestapo."

"The kids have been cooperative," he said, "though some were a little disturbed about it in the beginning. But if we can prevent something from happening, it's worth it."

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