Indianapolis Uses Metal Detectors on Elementary Pupils
A police officer brandishing a metal detector is the last thing 9-year-old Gabrielle Gaither expected to see as she hopped off her school bus in Indianapolis one recent morning. But the 4th grader at Joseph J. Bingham Elementary School vowed that she wasn't nervous as the officer scanned her backpack for weapons.
"The 1st graders might have felt a little scared, but if the police hadn't been there and someone had brought a gun to school, someone would have gotten hurt," Gabrielle said in an interview.
The 44,000-student Indianapolis district this spring became what may be the only school system in the country to use metal detectors in elementary schools.
Even in the nation's largest school districts, including New York City with 1.1 million students and Los Angeles with 682,000, metal-detector sweeps are done only in middle and high schools.
While some school crime experts say using metal detectors in elementary schools is an overreaction to violence on campuses or the threat of it, Indianapolis district leaders argue that the new policy is necessary to help keep guns, knives, and other weapons from showing up on school grounds.
The district instituted the policy in April after three elementary school pupils were arrested for gun possession in separate incidents.
"It was a shock in this community that kids had access to guns. They were taking them off dresser tops, from under beds," said Mary Louise Scheid, the spokeswoman for the Indianapolis schools.
In late March, an 8-year-old boy hid a gun in his math book to get it into class, then took it out and pointed it at another student because she had teased him about the size of his ears, Ms. Scheid said.
Earlier that month, a 7-year-old boy brought a handgun in "for protection" from another child who was picking on him. And last December, a 10-year-old brought an old, rusty gun into class to show it off to his friends, Ms. Scheid said.
The boys, who were expelled for the remainder of the school year, were the first elementary students to be arrested for weapons possession in the district, Ms. Scheid said.
"Our goal is to have safe schools, and we are going to check every child to make sure every school is safe. Every child must be prepared to be scanned," she said.
The district already scans middle and high school students daily for weapons. Under the new policy, a security officer will scan students at the district's 52 elementary schools two or three times a week. The schools will be randomly selected.
'It Won't Work'
Officials in larger school systems, such as Los Angeles, say they prefer to concentrate their efforts on the middle and high school grades where weapons possession has been more prevalent.
From July to December of 1997 in the Los Angeles district, 136 incidents were reported of high school students carrying a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or screwdriver. There were 62 such incidents in middle schools, and just eight on elementary school campuses, according to Patrick Spencer, a district spokesman.
"Given the figures, our main thrust should be applying the resources where the problem is the greatest," Mr. Spencer said. "It's overkill to require elementary schools to do it when we have so few incidents."
Scanning students with metal detectors as they walk into school, or get off buses or out of cars, may not be the most effective way to rid campuses of weapons anyway, some crime experts say.
"It won't work," said Dennis J. Kenney, the research director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank in Washington.
"Schools are not structurally built to become secure fortresses,'' Mr. Kenney said. "They aren't prisons. There are all kinds of ways in."
Besides, he said, metal detectors can become a kind of sport for students who want to try to beat the system by sneaking in contraband.
Some educators are also concerned that the use of metal detectors in the earliest grades might create an atmosphere that will make young students uncomfortable.
"It might be frightening for the kids," said June Million, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. "I assume the Indianapolis school system thinks they have to do whatever is necessary to make sure the children and the families feel safe, but it's a drastic measure that I hope doesn't catch on."
Vol. 17, Issue 38, Page 11Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Indianapolis Uses Metal Detectors on Elementary Pupils