Fighting a War on Weapons

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

As reports of youth violence mount and school campuses in some areas come to resemble miniature battlegrounds more than centers of learning, school districts are increasingly banking on modern technology to help them solve their troublesome security problems.

Nearly 35 percent of the nation's 100 largest urban school districts currently use metal detectors, up from 25 percent last summer, according to the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Yet, while many districts are enthusiastically embracing the technology, little scientific evidence exists to suggest that such devices have any effect on reducing the presence of weapons or the number of violent incidents on school grounds.

In fact, there is a disturbing lack of evidence that the metal detectors--whether they be walk-through archways or hand-held scanners--have any effect at all, says Ronald Stephens, the president of the N.S.S.C.

Nevertheless, the pace of acquisition is accelerating. No exact figures have been collected on how much school districts spend each year on metal detectors, but the industry is booming, thanks in part to increased purchases from schools, manufacturers say.

The buying boom is also likely to continue. The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved the "safe schools act,'' which includes up to $17 million in federal grant money for school security.

Detroit in 1985 became the first district to begin random metal-detector sweeps conducted by a local security company. In 1987, New York City became the first district to purchase metal detectors; it was followed shortly by Chicago. Last month, the Kansas City, Mo., school board began outfitting all its 44 high schools and middle schools with metal detectors at a total cost of $77,000. The board acted after an incident in which two students accidentally shot themselves at school with their own guns.

The Dallas Independent School District will triple the number of walk-through metal detectors in high schools next semester, following two fatal shootings at school shortly after classes began this fall.

School officials in Dade County, Fla., recently hired a security company to conduct random daily metal-detector searches at 80 high schools. The effort will cost $163,428 through the end of the school year.

After three separate fatal shootings outside local high schools this fall, General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson of the Chicago public schools pledged to provide metal detectors free to any high school that wanted them. All but 14 of the 72 high schools accepted.

May Not Reduce Crime

But the only study to evaluate the effectiveness of metal detectors in schools suggests that these districts may have made a bad investment.

Metal-detector programs in schools "may help reduce, but not eliminate,'' the number of students carrying weapons to and from school, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this fall. But school-based metal detectors "have no apparent effect on the number of injuries, deaths, or threats of violence'' on school grounds, the study concluded. The study was based on a survey of 9th- through 12th-grade students in the New York City public schools.

"It's easy to go with a metal detector, but long-term solutions have to go beyond technology measures,'' says Richard Lowry, the study's primary author.

Another report published last month by the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence calls the efforts to date to curb the flow of guns into schools "largely ineffective.'' Relying on reports from educators, the authors charge that metal detectors "provide little resistance to a determined student bent on wreaking havoc.''

Logistical Nightmare

Politicians and school boards are naturally attracted to metal detectors because they provide a tangible solution to a seemingly intractable problem. On an average day, studies suggest, 100,000 students across the country carry a gun to school, and educators want to believe their schools are safe.

Most schools buy the walk-through models, commonly found in airports and prisons, which can cost up to $2,500 each, or hand-held scanners or "wands,'' which typically sell for less than $200 apiece.

Last month, Frederica Wilson, a school board member in Dade County, said at the launching of the surprise metal-detector sweeps in her district that "we are sending a message home, and that is, 'It's time to shape up.'''

But Peter D. Blauvelt, the president of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, says: "The schools do this out of desperation. The public and the politicians demand it, and the schools feel they have to do something.''

School districts, he says, must spend at least $100,000 to put metal detectors in all their schools, or the impact is dubious. "It's the wrong technology for the environment,'' he argues.

Metal detectors pose a vexing problem for schools partly because of the way schools are built; their multiple entrances and exits make them difficult to monitor.

Wesley Mitchell, the chief of police for the Los Angeles Unified School District, purchased 350 hand-held detectors last spring for the district's high schools and middle schools. He says the wand scanners, which are used only for special events at selected schools, work better than archways because the bungalows and long fences typical of schools in the district make it difficult to completely secure the campuses.

"Kids know how to beat the system,'' Mitchell says.

Latoya Williams, a 6th grader at Garnet-Patterson Middle School in Washington, says that her classmates don't pay much attention to their school's walk-through metal detector.

"It's dumb because [the alarm] goes off when people don't have a knife,'' she says. "And, sometimes, they get in even when they have knives and guns.''

"You're never going to be able to prevent or be 100 percent sure that weapons aren't in school,'' acknowledges Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia public schools, which placed walk-through detectors in 31 of the city's schools last year.

Some school buildings in the district have 80 entrances, but students are randomly searched as they pass through one door of the building, Hinton says.

"It's not like an airport,'' she explains. "You've got 300 kids walking in at 8:45 A.M. If you stopped every kid, it'd be noon before you started class.''

Arthur Tarvardian, the assistant principal at Steinmetz High School in Chicago, rejected the district's offer of archway metal detectors because he says it would be a "logistical nightmare'' to have students walk through the machines every morning. "It would take hours, and we couldn't disrupt the entire school day,'' he says.

But in Kansas City, where 20 students were expelled for carrying guns in school last year, the security chief says schools often have to choose technology over manpower.

"Otherwise, you'd have to use 5,000 police officers to hand-search every kid who went in,'' says Robert L. Livingston, the district's director of safety and security.

Personnel, Training Woes

But even using modern equipment, school security is a labor-intensive activity.

Schools must constantly grapple with the lack of personnel available to operate the detectors. Assistant principals, teachers, and sometimes even older students are enlisted to monitor the points of entry.

Floyd M. Banks, the principal of Chicago's Dunbar High School, says he refused to install metal detectors at the school partly because their use would take personnel away from supervising the corridors and lunchrooms. Banks chose to use video surveillance instead.

Manufacturers, who advertise at education conventions and publish how-to manuals for schools, admit that metal detectors are not very effective in schools, in part because school workers are not adequately trained to use them.

There is a need for more consumer information on metal detectors and courses on how to handle a student with a weapon, Stephens of the school-safety center says.

"Teachers did not see this in their training manual,'' he notes.

Only 274 of the nation's more than 15,000 school districts have security directors. And most schools have limited knowledge of security practice, according to Mal Schwartz, the president of Friskem Infenetics Inc., a leading metal-detector manufacturer in Wilmington, Del.

"Security doesn't come easy, and schools want to buy a box with a ribbon on it and have security,'' Schwartz says. "It doesn't happen that way.''

To do it properly, schools should set up a security committee, make sure every entrance and exit is monitored, and set up a rotation schedule for school officials or security officers to operate the detectors, Schwartz advises.

Like a Prison

Designed to protect all the school's occupants, metal detectors necessarily place restrictions even on the vast majority of students who are law-abiding. Since metal detectors were first used in schools, two lawsuits have been brought against schools that involved metal detectors, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Many experts believe the widespread use of detectors will eventually precipitate more legal action.

Generic searches of students may be considered unconstitutional in some jurisdictions, according to Bernard James, the special counsel for the N.S.S.C. Some federal courts, he says, may hold that the searches violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

If a school has had incidents involving weapons, then use of metal detectors would likely be considered lawful, he says. But if the school has had no weapons-related outbreaks, use of the devices would be suspect, he adds.

"The laws were not set up to deal with proactive metal-detector searches,'' James says.

He suggests that schools not scan students in public, but in a way that preserves their dignity.

Some school officials also believe the devices themselves send the wrong message to students.

"Some say it's a deterrent, but it works on a kid's psyche in other ways,'' says Banks of Dunbar High School. "They feel they're going into a prison instead of a school.''

"The superintendent is not thrilled that the schools have them, because it sets up a jail-like atmosphere in a place that's supposed to be an institution of learning,'' says David Rudd, a spokesman for the Chicago public schools. "But we need to make sure school is a safe haven.''

The security tools themselves can actually have a detrimental effect on a student's welfare, some principals contend.

"They give us a false sense of security,'' says Tarvardian of Chicago's Steinmetz High, "because metal detectors can't guarantee anything.''

Nevertheless, some officials believe the devices work.

C.W. Burruss, the director of safety and security for the Dallas school district, believes the detectors he bought in 1991 are having an effect. With a limited number of metal detectors in place, school officials confiscated 155 guns and knives on or near school property during the first year. The previous year, the figure was 161. With the expansion under way, Burruss expects further gains.

Burruss acknowledges that confiscation rates can be read two ways. Higher rates mean the detectors are keeping weapons out of school; lower rates suggest fewer students attempt to come armed to class.

The Dallas district, like others nationwide, is moving to develop crime-prevention tools as alternatives to dectectors.

For example, the district is building 15 schools that have been designed with security in mind. The new structures will lack the nooks and crannies where students can hide weapons and will feature built-in metal sensors on doors and special windows that are harder to open.

The security chief calls it "modern crime prevention through environmental design.''

"You have to use an assortment of cameras and metal detectors until you can change attitudes,'' Burruss argues.

'One Arrow in a Quiver'

Even educators who endorse the use of metal detectors acknowledge that the devices are not a cure-all for school violence.

"The use of metal detectors should be only one arrow in a whole quiver of strategies to address the problem of weapons at school,'' William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach for the U.S. Education Department, told a gathering of state policymakers this fall.

Crisis intervention, crime prevention, and conflict-resolution classes must be combined to address this crisis, school leaders say.

"We need to empower students with nonviolent strategies so they can deal with the problem in nonviolent ways,'' Stephens of the school-safety center says.

The Los Angeles district has set up a telephone hot line for students to confidentially report someone who is bringing a weapon to school. Teachers and administrators should work with students because it is rare that a student doesn't tell a friend that he has a gun, says Larry R. Hutchins, the deputy chief of police for the district.

In Kansas City, the district has a "youth court'' where students have mock trials in which their "crimes'' are judged by their peers. Teachers hope the program will instill in them a sense of crime and punishment that will carry over into the rest of their lives.

One controversial idea that is gaining support is enrolling students who have been caught with weapons on campus in special alternative schools, rather than expelling them and running the risk they will get into more trouble on the streets. Some schools use adult volunteers as campus monitors and mentors.

"We have to work with people and hope [students] understand that the solution is not to kill someone,'' Tarvardian says.

But, he notes, schools cannot be primarily responsible for fixing the problem of youth violence. Reducing accessibility to weapons is something parents, the community, and lawmakers must address together.

Schools reflect the society in which they are found, and until violence in society is addressed, school leaders say, very little will change in the schools.

Vol. 13, Issue 14

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories