Girl's Slaying Elicits Calls for Metal Detectors
The death of a 1st grade girl shot by a 6-year-old classmate in a Michigan classroom has prompted educators to examine whether metal detectors ought to be deployed in elementary schools. While security equipment is rare in grade schools, and many experts question if it's needed at all, parents like Laura Simons are now pushing schools to buy hardware to keep their children safe.
Buell Elementary School resumed classes last week, but Ms. Simons said her 8-year-old son wouldn't be joining the other students. He was just down the hall from the classroom in the Mount Morris Township, Mich., school where 6-year-old Kayla Rowland was shot point-blank in the chest Feb. 29.
"My son heard a boom and the kids crying," said Ms. Simons, who last week had gathered 4,000 signatures on a petition asking the 2,800-student Beecher District to install surveillance cameras and metal detectors at Buell. "I am worried my kid is going to be next."
Principal Jimmy Hughes said that metal detectors would be discussed at a security meeting with district officials this week.
Most districts already take measures to try to protect their younger students. Seventy-one percent of the country's elementary schools screen visitors, 63 percent lock their doors, and 57 percent use walkie-talkies to report suspicious activity, a survey conducted last fall by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found.
Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of elementary schools in the country use metal detectors, and only 1 percent of elementary schools conduct random metal-detector checks, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
But in the past two years, as schools have been jolted by a spate of multiple shootings by student gunmen, dozens of elementary schools have decided to purchase metal detectors to scan children as they enter and leave the buildings. And last fall, Chicago's chief education officer ordered the distribution of metal detectors to all of the district's 489 elementary schools. The hand-held wands will cost an estimated $366,000.
"Guns are more prevalent in people's homes and lives, and unfortunately in schools," said Cozette Buckney, the chief education officer of the 413,000-student Chicago district. "We have an obligation to use everything at our disposal. Clearly, what we have seen is that [crime] can happen anyplace, anytime. "
The Indianapolis district began using metal detectors in its 52 elementary schools two years ago after three elementary students were arrested for carrying guns on campus. District officials say they are pleased with their investment. "We feel the [metal detectors] are a deterrent," said Mary Louise Schied, a spokeswoman for the 41,000-student district.
One elementary school is chosen daily for a random sweep. Students can be searched on the bus or while waiting in line to enter the school, Ms. Schied said. "Kids aren't going to learn if they don't feel safe. If that means weapon detection at the elementary level, so be it."
A Rare Event
Some critics of the practice, however, contend that elementary schools don't need expensive electronic devices because crimes rarely happen there. Only 27—or 10 percent-of the 261 violent deaths at schools since 1992 occurred in elementary schools, according to an ongoing tally of school-related violent deaths compiled by the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif. A big majority—179—of the homicides and suicides took place in high schools, while 42 occurred in junior highs and 12 in alternative schools, the latest report says.
Furthermore, critics say, most juvenile crimes that happen in school, or on the street, generally don't involve little children shooting other little children. In a report, "Kids and Guns," released this month, the U.S. Department of Justice says that of all the violent crimes committed by juveniles between 1992 and 1994, only 14 percent of the accused were preschoolers to 8th graders.
Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington research group, argues that the threat to children's safety in school is highly exaggerated. "We are clucking our tongues and shaking our heads and saying, 'How can kids be so bad?' " Mr. Schiraldi said. "It's not good to make America believe that there's a potential shooter in every school."
Studies show that teaching children to mediate conflicts in a nonviolent manner and teaching educators good disciplinary practices work better to curb violence than do electronic devices, according to Mr. Schiraldi. "Once you put in cameras and metal detectors, you rely on them as a solution and ease up on the harder work—that is, creating a climate that teaches peaceful resolution," he said.
Violence-prevention experts also have pointed out that metal detectors have not proved to be effective at keeping guns out of schools because staff members can't always control every entrance and exit.
June Million, the spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, believes that such devices can create a jail-like atmosphere that might be frightening to children.
NAESP officials say that controlling access to guns is a better way to reduce violent crime than scanning for deadly weapons lurking in children's backpacks. "If a gun were not present [in Mount Morris Township], the results would have been far different," said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director.
The new Justice Department study found that juveniles' access to guns was directly connected to fluctuations in the juvenile-crime rate, which rose in the late 1980s and early '90s, but has declined in recent years. The rate of juvenile arrests for homicides that did not involve firearms stayed level over the past two decades, but the number of youth-perpetrated homicides involving firearms escalated from fewer than 600 in 1984 to about 1,700 in 1993. Then, it dropped to nearly 1,200 in 1997.
Maxie D. Johnson, the principal of Chenoweth Elementary School in Jefferson County, Ky., believes the possibility is remote that a shooting would occur in her school. Still, she's pleased that the 104,300-student district, recently purchased a metal detector for her school as a precaution."We don't have a security issue in my school," she said, "but it's good to have this just in case."
Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 3Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Girl's Slaying Elicits Calls for Metal Detectors