Although some urban districts have had metal detectors for decades, suburban schools had not really considered adding them until the mid- to late 1990s, after a spate of multiple-victim school shootings occurred. Scared parents and good-hearted educators often see metal detectors as a way to ensure that guns and other weapons do not make it into school buildings. Approximately 10% of all U.S schools now use metal detectors. In urban areas such as Chicago, the proportion of schools with metal detectors is much higher. Some schools use the doorframe-style detectors commonly found in courts and other sensitive public buildings, whereas others use the less expensive hand-held versions that are manned by school personnel or security guards. The United Kingdom has also considered wider use of metal detectors, in particular in areas in which knife fights are common. Authorities say youth ages 12 to 24 are responsible for three-fourths of all knife violence, and these weapons often make it onto school grounds.
Critics contend that metal detectors are not really effective, are too costly, and prevent school administration from considering other, more useful, interventions. Proponents maintain that metal detector searches are not invasive and are commonly used in courtrooms and airports. The argument is that they can be a powerful deterrent to students considering bringing weapons to school.
One concern related to their use is the cost of metal detectors. A walk-through detector costs a minimum of $5,000. For a building to be truly secure, all entrances would need to be equipped with a detector or otherwise inaccessible. Additionally, someone must be posted at the detector to further inspect persons who make it go off, so there might be an additional personnel-related cost. Hand-held detectors are far less expensive, costing approximately $100 each, but again must be staffed.
Another problem is that many districts have installed detectors based on the fear generated by school shootings elsewhere, not on a particular need in their own community. Research has shown that, while metal detectors may be helpful in urban areas with long histories of students bringing weapons to school, when they are installed in districts that have not had any specific weapons-related problems, the result may be just the opposite. That is, the installation of metal detectors serves to tell students, staff, and parents that there must actually be a problem and ends up increasing fear levels. When people are fearful of school violence, they are more guarded, more likely to accuse others of deviant activity, less likely to find the educational climate conducive to learning, and–exactly opposite to the intended effect–may be more likely to bring weapons for self defense.
To date, no case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of school-based metal detectors. Lower courts have, however, deemed metal detector searches to be administrative in nature; hence they are an exception to the probable cause warrant rule. Metal detector searches are blanket searches, in that students are subjected to them simply because they are students and not because there is any individualized suspicion that they have a weapon. Some civil libertarians see this logic as problematic.
Additionally, critics contend that metal detectors are intrusive, in that once they indicate someone has contraband, that person must endure another, more personal screening. Unfortunately, sometimes officials charged with this work abuse their power, and there have been many instances in which young females allege they were groped while being patted down.
Another problem is that metal detectors sometimes do not work. One issue specific to hand-held detectors is that there is no way school officials can use the wand on every incoming student before the start of the school day. As a result, they often end up saying they are randomly searching students, but actually engage in a regular pattern, such as searching every third student. This pattern is easy to detect, and students interested in smuggling weapons into a school building can simply line up so that they will avoid the detector. Further, students can smuggle items through entrances or windows not staffed with detectors, or others who have passed through can be handed items from those who have not via windows or other openings. Several high-profile cases have illustrated these inadequacies in search policies. In some locations, the detectors are not even operational.
Critics contend that schools are not and should not be considered the same as airports or courtrooms. First, students are required to attend school through compulsory education laws. Second, the time spent in a school is significantly greater than that spent in airports or courtrooms, for the most part. Third, schools have a different purpose than do these locations. Ideally, educators will develop quality relationships with students, rather than accusing them of wrongdoing, which is what a metal detector does. Instead of investing time, money, and resources on metal detectors, experts suggest that schools should focus on prevention programming and identifying struggling students so that they can stop weapons-related violence from occurring.
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