Metal detectors a possibility for city elementary schools?

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philly high schools are fitted with metal detectors, but experts warn that the devices are not a guarantee of safety.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philly high schools are fitted with metal detectors, but experts warn that the devices are not a guarantee of safety.
Posted: March 26, 2013

AS A NOONTIME aide at John Reynolds Elementary School in North Philadelphia, Carol Porter is used to quieting rowdy kids or breaking up horseplay. But when a 7-year-old student told her he had a gun in his backpack, it was a first.

"I felt bad about it," said Porter, a short, gray-haired woman who has three grandchildren who attend the school. "I was happy that the child came to let me know."

Police came to the school and recovered the loaded .357 Magnum.

"Anything could've happened. The child could have just pulled it out in a playful situation, but it was a serious situation," she said.

Not long after, a school officer at another district elementary school saw what looked like a knife handle sticking out of a student's backpack as kids entered the school. The officer stopped the student and found a 12-inch serrated knife.

As of last week, the district had recovered six handguns and 31 BB or pellet guns this school year. By this time last year, two handguns and 24 BB or pellet guns had been recovered.

The district has avoided a serious gun tragedy, but that hasn't stopped school officials from considering installing metal detectors in elementary schools to enhance security.

"We want to get ahead of things. That's what scans do; they put us ahead of things. They prevent a weapon from getting in school. The threat of [a weapon getting into a school] concerns us," said Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, who is in charge of the district's Office of School Safety. She cautioned that the discussion about scanners at elementary schools is preliminary and part of a comprehensive review of district procedures after a 5-year-old was abducted from Bryant Elementary School in West Philly earlier this year.

Dorsey acknowledged that scanning young children is a "very, very touchy subject," but said the district must weigh it.

Grade-school debate

All district high schools have walk-through metal detectors. Some middle schools do as well. But no elementary schools currently scan for weapons.

Nationally, similar trends have emerged. Most of the country's largest school districts have some form of scanning, but metal detectors in elementary schools are extremely rare. The debate has been renewed, however, in the wake of the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn.

"I believe that we'll have to look and see what the trends are, but I also do believe, realistically, we have to consider [that] if we're finding weapons, is there anything we're not picking up?" Dorsey asked. "We're not checking every bag, and we don't want to stigmatize young children, but if we can prevent one assault, if we can prevent one tragedy, we need to look at other means."

School-safety experts say metal detectors often give communities a false sense of security and require a large investment, both for equipment and personnel.

"Our schools are not designed as places to be defended," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a California-based nonprofit. "They're quite open and accessible. It's pretty easy in most elementary schools to hop the fence or enter another way."

Stephens referenced the Red Lake, Minn., massacre in 2005, when 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise shot and killed seven people at Red Lake Senior High School. Weise, a former student at the school, approached two unarmed guards at a metal detector, killing one. He then went into the school's main corridor and killed several students before finally killing himself after police wounded him.

"Metal scanners might be helpful," Stephens said. "It will certainly harden the target a bit, but if a school district is expecting metal scanners to be a foolproof strategy, they're barking up the wrong tree. My suggestion to school districts is don't build the moat just yet."

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school-safety consulting firm, said districts often don't think through the implementation of metal scanners, which lessens their effectiveness.

"You have to start asking questions like, 'How's this going to work? How long's it going to take thousands of kids to get through metal detectors? Are you going to use them 24 hours a day?' " Trump said. "I remember several schools where, in one case, they shut the metal detectors off at 10 in the morning because security had to go monitor the lunchroom during lunch period, so the students who wanted to bring weapons would just come late."

Trump said officers would have to man the detectors, which would mean hiring additional officers or removing officers from other duties. Stationary scanners also assume that the school has only one entry point for students.

There is already a strain on resources within the School District of Philadelphia. The district has 371 school police officers, but not every school has an officer stationed there throughout the day. In some instances, officers do roving patrols or get assistance from Philadelphia police.

Equipment costs are also an issue. Walk-through metal detectors can cost upward of $2,000 each - a price that seems way out of reach for a district that had to borrow $300 million just to pay its current bills.

Aside from logistical and financial issues, experts say there is a fine line between making schools secure and turning them into prisonlike structures.

Some parents and family members interviewed last week outside Reynolds, in North Philadelphia, said they would support the idea of scanning children.

"I think they should. It would make the kids safer," said Rasheed Ferrell, who has several nieces and nephews who attend Reynolds. "There's nothing wrong with metal detectors."

Ferrell noted that children, because of their age, often don't realize the danger of bringing a weapon to school.

"I'm surprised they never installed them before [Newtown]. They need to tighten security up at every school now," he said.

Keith Perkins, a father of three children at the school, said he favors the idea "100 percent."

"They bring guns to school, so [with metal detectors] they catch them before they get into the school. Nip that right in the bud at the door," Perkins said.

Because of the prevalence of guns in the city, Perkins said he is concerned that a student could get his hands on a gun, bring it to a school and cause a tragedy.

Sandra Corbitt, a mother of four Reynolds students, said the surrounding neighborhood gives her more pause than the school itself. Still, she is not opposed to scanners as an added security measure.

"It could kind of desensitize people to feel like they're safe, but it couldn't hurt," she said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the best way to improve safety is to put more adults in schools.

"You need adults to talk to children," Jordan said. "A metal detector can't talk to a child and can't find out what a child is feeling. An adult can."

The district has significantly reduced the number of support staff in schools because of its financial distress over the past few years. Jordan said that has contributed to changes in the school climate.

"Most of [the noontime aides] live in the neighborhoods and know the kids and know what's going on," he said.

Alternative plans

Although Trump, of National School Safety and Security Services, said students can find ways to avoid metal detectors, he said random scanning with handheld wands can be much more effective. Under random scanning, officers might do unannounced scans of a few classrooms or scan all students on random days.

"That's a good way of mixing it up and keeping people on their guard, so they really never know when or where it's coming. They don't know if it's coming every day; they don't know when it's coming," he said.

Stephens agreed that random scans have been effective in some urban districts, such as Los Angeles. Another option, he said, is deploying gun-sniffing dogs to occasionally search the schools.

"You can implement all kinds of strategies, but which ones will produce the kind of results you want?" he asked. "This is about keeping campuses safe without turning them into armed camps."

One thing everyone agrees on is that school staff are key to helping crack down on the flow of weapons in schools. Dorsey said she wants to be proactive by educating students about the dangers of weapons and what to do if they see someone with a weapon in school.

"Education is a great way to put out that we want to prevent things," Dorsey said. "We also have to educate parents or guardians who keep weapons in their home to keep them away from children and keep them locked up, so kids know they don't touch that. We did that at Reynolds. Maybe we should do the same thing at [other schools]."

There is no timetable on a decision about metal detectors in elementary schools. Dorsey said the district will take its time and do its homework.

"We have to look at things and we have to weigh them. We don't want to traumatize [students], but we have to do some more research and some more studies," she said.

" @ChroniclesofSol


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