What Should Schools Consider Regarding Metal Detectors and X-Ray Scanners as Security Measures?

Many school districts today are understandably concerned by the levels of violence in our schools, both actual and potential.  In addition to the increasing levels of "normal" school violence such as stabbings, shootings, and gang violence, many people today are afraid of the possibility of terrorist attacks on our schools.  School adminstrators and parents often consider and debate the merits of physical security measures such as metal detectors and hand wands to screen students at school entrances, and X-ray package scanners to screen the contents of backpacks and parcels.  These security systems are used to ensure that students, staff, and visitors do not bring weapons or other contraband onto school grounds.  The threat of violences extends beyond school buildings themselves to high school auditoriums, sports fields, and other places where high school sports and other activities with large groups of students occur.

However, not everybody is convinced that metal detectors in schools and other physical security measures are appropriate for schools, or that they are really an affordable solution.  

Decision makers and other interested parties (including parents, teachers, and members of the community), need to consider the potential benefits alongside the drawbacks and costs of using metal detectors and package scanners in schools, in order to ensure that they can properly manage a weapon detection program that reduces the risk of violence and acts as a functional deterrent to crime within the premises.

The National Institute of Justice confirms in its project, The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools, that walk-through metal detectors work well at detecting most types of firearms and knives, and can be used as part of a school environment.  As a case study, the New York City school district, with over 1.1 million students, has used metal detectors and package scanners in schools with notable success. New York City has been equipping 88 school buildings with handheld and walkthrough metal detectors, X-ray machines, and school safety officers since the last fatal shooting in a New York City school in 1992.  It is an unfortunate reality that many schools, and not just those in big cities, need to be concerned about school violence.  

There are five basic elements for school districts to take into account before deciding whether to use metal detectors and x-ray scanners:

1) The layout of the entry area must restrict people from bypassing the screening portals, and must have sufficient space for those waiting to walk through the portal to stand.

2) Schools have to plan for the number of students arriving and provide sufficient space for those waiting in the queue to enter. Those waiting in line need to be kept a minimum of three feet from the scanner so as not to interfere with its operation, and scanners must be a minimum of ten feet from each other unless properly synchronized to avoid interference.

3) In addition to metal detectors, X-ray equipment is highly recommended to handle students' bookbags, backpacks, purses, and other parcels.  Contraband can easily be concealed in these types of items, and an X-ray scanner can show the specific contents without a lengthy search that would otherwise slow down throughput.

4) Handheld scanners are required to pinpoint the location of objects that have triggered an alarm in a student or visitor passing through the walk-through metal detector. This also means that safety officials will need to be trained in their use and capable of sorting false positives from actual threats.

5) The design of most schools does not necessarily lend itself to a comfortable staging area that can support the requirements to properly screen those passing through. As such, layout of a screening solution will need to be carefully considered 

There are also five basic financial costs to account for when purchasing security systems to keep schools safe:

1) The initial expense of a walkthrough metal detector sufficiently sensitive to detect weapons.

2) The cost of handheld metal detectors in order to locate objects detected by the walk-through scanners.

3) The cost of X-ray baggage scanners to detect weapons and contraband within bags and backpacks.

4) The cost of maintaining these machines over time and of replacement at the end of their service life.

5) Most importantly, the cost of hiring and properly training school security guards to operate the equipment, screen for hazards, and manage the flow of students so that they enter safely and on time.

As some experts point out, even this is not a universal guarantee of protection from violent incidents by fellow students. Students still ride school buses that are not screened, and violence can still occur outside of the school on school grounds. Ensuring absolute security would also require that all other entrances to the building be secured and staffed at all times to prevent bypassing the main entrance metal detectors, and ground-level windows would need to be permanently secured to avoid contraband being passed through to those on the inside who have already passed screening. Furthermore, while many districts are prepared to have trained operators manning metal detectors during school opening, unless they continue to man the detectors, this does not screen against late students, visitors, school employees, parents, and others, and thus creates the opportunity for persons to enter the school during times without screening and store weapons in the building if desired.

As such, both proponents and detractors of school metal detectors agree that the security technology is only as good as the people operating it, and that the best line of defense against school violence is a well-trained and alert staff and student body. Conscious decisions must be made and potential risks determined when designing a weapon detection program, and while metal detectors are not a universal solution to the threat of school crime, they are one potential component in a broader comprehensive school safety program that has to be evaluated for return on investment of time and resources alongside other prevention, intervention, and security strategies.