There are many common misperceptions about the use of metal detectors to keep weapons out of schools. On one hand, many people think that simply purchasing and installing metal detectors will keep weapons out. People who are not experienced with effective metal detection often underestimate how many people it takes to properly screen large numbers of people in a reasonable time frame. Effective metal detection also requires very tight access control to keep violators from simply bypassing the metal detection checkpoint.
On the other hand, there are many people and organizations that have been critical regarding the use of metal detectors as ineffective, often basing their opinions on schools where metal detection is ineffective because it is either not implemented properly or because it is implemented as a stand-alone measure without a range of appropriate supportive prevention strategies.
When utilized properly as part of a comprehensive approach to reduce the presence of weapons in schools, metal detection clearly reduces student weapons violations and assaults with weapons on school property. I make these comments based on extensive first-hand experience not only helping clients implement and improve school metal detection programs, but in helping to develop a program for my own school district in the early 1990’s. Our school district police officers confiscated over 400 weapons including 18 guns from our 25,000 students in one year before the nation’s first random surprise metal detection program was implemented. We also experienced a number of edged weapons attacks by students that school year. In the ten years after the program and a wide array of other prevention strategies were implemented, the district saw a 90% drop in student weapons violations and only experienced one edged weapons attack by a student.
Considering that past experience indicated there would have likely been between 20 and 30 edged weapons attacks during this time period if new strategies had not been implemented, this is a dramatic and tangible reduction in serious violent incidents. There was one instance where school district police officer Levi Rozier averted a planned double suicide of two high school students as a direct result of our random surprise metal detection providing one clear example that an effective school metal detection can prevent the deaths of students.
It should also be noted that when the metal detection program was suspended for most of the 2011-2012 school year, the number of weapons seized from students more than doubled and a 650% increase in the number of guns confiscated from students was documented. The program was recently re-established after a student was caught with a gun, another student was shot at while he was at a school bus stop and yet another student was slashed with a box cutter during the first week of the school year. While there are other prevention approaches that are being implemented to support the metal detection strategy, it is very clear that metal detection is an appropriate strategy for this high-risk community.
It is extremely important to understand that not every school needs metal detectors and that some schools may require entry point metal detection (a similar approach to that used at airports and courthouses) while the threat level in other schools may make random surprise metal detection more appropriate. In many schools, metal detection is not only not appropriate for the risk level but would also be unwise because the funding and energy expended would be better spent on other prevention measures.
As with security cameras and many other school safety technologies, the implementation of metal detection should be based on a formal evaluation and assessment process and requires a reasonable understanding of what the technology can and cannot be expected to accomplish in the school setting. Having evaluated school metal detection programs for multiple civil actions as an expert witness, as an evaluator for the metal detection program for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and having evaluated numerous school system metal detection programs during school security audits, it is apparent that metal detection for schools should be based on an assessment process, policy development and implementation and proper training to staff on the processes and equipment utilized is helpful. Most importantly, I have seen school system metal detection programs work miracles in reducing the dangers of weapons in schools.
We have ample evidence that students and staff in schools with poor access control, visitor sign in procedures and student sign out protocols are at increased risk. Here are just a few examples of the types of cases we see relating to these areas:
- A daughter of the owner of a prominent pasta maker was abducted from a Florida independent school by a man posing as his bodyguard who signed the student out for a dental appointment. He and an accomplice were arrested by FBI agents after they demanded a one million dollar ransom.
- A Kansas elementary student was sexually molested by a man who refused to stop and identify himself to school employees.
- Two Tennessee elementary students were murdered by their father after he signed them out of school in violation of a court order. The man wrote in the sign out log that the reason for signing out the students was “payback”.
- A man entered an unlocked side door of a Georgia elementary school and embedded a metal hammer in a student’s skull causing permanent brain damage.
- Bibb County, Georgia school police officers arrested a man who tried to sign out the son of his ex-girlfriend at an elementary school after he had vowed to kill the boy. Officers recovered a loaded .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and several knives from the man who had driven fourteen hours from Pennsylvania to kill the child.
Though we are and should be shocked by such terrible acts, we should not be at all surprised by them. These types of incidents have been taking place for many years at public and non-public schools in urban, suburban and rural communities. When we look at the grisly acts of violence that sometimes take place in our communities, we should not be taken by surprise when the types of people who will commit such terrible acts decide to do so at schools.
In any week, we can see horrific acts of violence committed against children, youth, ex-wives, ex-husbands and other victims that have clear implications for the need to provide proper security in our schools. Last week, 34-year-old Aaron Schaffhausen allegedly drove from Minot, North Dakota to a small town in Wisconsin and brutally murdered all three of his daughters, tucked their bodies in their beds and sent his wife a text message telling her that he had killed the girls.
School employees in all positions should understand that a person who will carry out such a brutal act of violence against his own children will not hesitate to come to the finest independent, charter, public or parochial school, in the nicest part of town and forever change the lives of innocent students and staff.
We know how offenders can beat even high-tech security systems if school employees are not trained and empowered to provide good security with solid and enforced procedures, quality staff development and true leadership. Though the public and the processes of civil litigation will judge the actions of school officials who do not realize the danger and act appropriately in time, the gravest punishment can be internal. When we fail to properly address these dangers, we must live with the knowledge that we did not do what is reasonable and appropriate when tragedy strikes. To paraphrase what one educator from a school where one of the above incidents occurred told an audience I was presenting to – we paid millions of dollars but we can never bring these children back, we killed them by trusting people too much. The chances are high that this fall, there will be an elementary school within a short drive of this horrible crime scene where anyone can walk right in through an unlocked door and gain access to innocent students due to unrealistically lax school security.
We are all on notice to the danger, but are we all really listening to the warnings?
There are so many ways to make schools safer that are no-cost and low-cost approaches. Visitor sign in protocols, locking doors, supervising students effectively and many other valuable tools can dramatically reduce risk in schools. There are also a number of amazing technology solutions available to schools today. However, the catch is that all of these proven approaches require the support of school employees to work.
One of our analysts was able to defeat the security of a client district’s high school three days in a row in spite of the fact that this school incorporates some of the most recent and robust security systems in use by schools today, including:
- An access control system that requires students to use a proximity card to enter the school.
- Entry point walk through metal detection
- Security X-ray screening of all purses, book bags and other items
- A visitor management system that requires that a visitor’s driver’s license to be swiped to automatically check their identifying information against databases of known sexual predators, barred individuals and outstanding court orders.
- Daytime alarm coverage for all other exterior doors
- A robust security camera system that is staffed and monitored by a security officer
- Nine hall monitors
- One police officer
In spite of all of this security technology and personnel, Russell Bentley was able to gain access to the school interior without detection three days in a row. In addition to our security assessment, a real incident occurred due to the same issue when a group of gang members entered the school and attacked a student during school hours.
These gaps were possible because there was no buy-in for safety measures by staff at the school. There was no appreciation for a culture of safety and security among staff or leadership. This is one of the most challenging hurdles faced by school security directors, school district police chiefs and others tasked with maintaining safe and secure schools. But when you enter a school where all these things have come together, you immediately notice the difference.
Efforts to inform, educate and involve staff should be ongoing, and must be thoughtfully implemented to obtain meaningful results.
Student supervision is one of the most fundamental and important aspects of school safety for K12 schools. Many school safety problems result from situations where students are not being properly supervised which is why student supervision is frequently a key issue in school safety litigation.
Proper and well-documented staff development relating to student supervision, as well as thoughtfully written policies, should be one of the most important aspects of any school safety program. The bad news is that these are overlooked all too often, and we can see this when we evaluate many of the preventable school safety incidents that occur each year.
Effective student supervision concepts are especially important in certain situations, such as during emergency evacuations, lockdowns and sheltering. Failures in this area have resulted in multiple deaths in at least one incident and have caused significant problems in a number of other situations. Another situation where student supervision is very important involves student field trips and special events like pep rallies, athletic events, graduation ceremonies and other situations that require adaptations of concepts designed to improve student supervision and accountability.
Focusing on ways to improve student supervision is one of the most cost-effective and reliable ways to reduce the risk of serious injury and death to students and to staff. Whether the threat involves bullying, tornadoes or acts of terrorism, improving approaches to student supervision reduces the risk that students and staff will experience harm.
During a visit to the Mayan Ruins at Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico last week, Michael Dorn observed this group of students on a field trip who were not being properly supervised. This lax supervision could quickly result in an injury or death at a site where numerous hazards are present, and children can easily fall 20 to 300 feet if they are not extremely careful in navigating the ruins. In a region where police officers typically patrol with a fully automatic weapon or tactical shotgun in their hands, risks from violence are also a factor as they would be in many parts of the United States, Canada, the U.K. Israel and other countries where school violence has been problematic.