Tragedies like the Columbine shootings of 1999 have made metal detectors more common as a method of stopping students from bringing weapons on school property. About 11 percent of school districts nationally report using such devices, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Supporters see metal detectors as a tool to reduce the risk of harm to students and staff, while critics question whether districts should create a climate that relies less on physical security measures.
Detection and Deterrence Value
Proponents of metal detectors, such as Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, view having them in schools as a proactive technique to curb violence by intercepting and confiscating weapons. For example, Philadelphia school officials recovered six handguns and 31 BB or pellet guns in March 2013. A screening system like metal detectors lets students know they risk suspension, expulsion and police investigation if security officers catch them bringing weapons onto school property.
Money and Time
Installing metal detectors requires hiring and training people to operate them. One example is the New York City Board of Education's program in place at 50 of its inner-city high schools. For one school with 2,000 students, nine security officers are needed for two additional hours every morning, according to a National Criminal Justice Reference Service overview. This is money that could be used for more academic purposes. Districts must also restructure starting times to avoid long waits that make students late for class.
A Role in Security Planning
Metal detectors can play a role in a comprehensive school security strategy, according to the International Foundation for Protection Officers. The purpose of metal detectors is to find guns, knives and other forbidden objects before a student uses them to harm peers or employees. The foundation's analysis indicates that security experts recommend combining using metal detectors with other measures such as implementing anti-bullying initiatives, controlling access to school buildings, installing closed circuit video systems, and training staff to recognize threatening behavior.
A False Sense of Security
An overreliance on physical security measures like metal detectors may breed complacency and unrealistic expectations. Many shootings and other violent incidents happen outside of school buildings, according to Ken Trump, President of the consulting firm, National School Safety and Security Services. Also, parents often don't realize that metal detectors can be compromised by faulty equipment, failure to follow policies, or inconsistent operating procedures.
Introducing metal detectors in schools may backfire by creating a militarized environment that stigmatizes students as violent and untrustworthy, while doing little or nothing to ease their fears of crime, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Such measures also feed public perceptions of schools as inherently dangerous places. Student social interaction is also likely to suffer, the association argues, since using metal detectors often accompanies strict discipline measures.
- International Foundation for Protection Officers: Post-Columbine School Security Approaches in York County, Pennsylvania
- National Association of School Psychologists: Research on School Security: The Impact of Security Measures on Students
- National Criminal Justice Reference Service: Walk-Through Metal Detectors for Personnel: Hardware Costs and Manpower Costs
- National School Safety and Security Services: School Metal Detectors
- Philly.com: Metal Detectors Possible for City Elementary Schools?
- Photo Credit HABY/iStock/Getty Images
- Journal of School Health: Impacts of Metal Detector Use in Schools: Insights From 15 Years of Research
- IRI Analysis: Surveillance in Schools: Safety vs. Personal Privacy
- National Association of School Psychologists: NASP Recommendations for Comprehensive School Safety Policies January 2013
- NBC News: Does Every School Need a Metal Detector?
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