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Atlanta school shooting raises doubts about metal detectors

Price Middle School in Atlanta has metal detectors, but a student was shot and wounded Thursday. Districts considering these devices have to weigh the costs and whether they belong in schools at all.

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In this image made from video, authorities investigate the scene of a school shooting, Thursday, in Atlanta. Price Middle School has metal detectors but it is not clear if the shooter – a 15-year-old student there – went through a detector before he allegedly shot and wounded a 14-year-old student in a courtyard where students were moving between classes.

WSB-TV/AP

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A shooting at an Atlanta middle school Thursday has prompted questions about the effectiveness of metal detectors as a school security measure.

Price Middle School has metal detectors. But it’s not clear if the shooter – a 15-year-old student there, according to police – went through a detector Thursday. He allegedly shot and wounded a 14-year-old student in a courtyard where students were moving between classes, and then was disarmed by an armed resource officer and taken into custody.

The courtyard is accessible from outside the school, but the alleged shooter had arrived at school earlier in the day, an Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman says.

The Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., prompted an examination of school safety nationwide and calls for more armed security in schools, and Thursday’s incident may bolster supporters of that approach.

There has not been a corresponding spike in interest in metal detectors, says Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. When someone arrives at a school already shooting, he notes, a metal detector would make no difference.

Metal detectors are not practical for every school, but they are appropriate “when you have an ongoing situation with weapons coming into school,” Mr. Bond says. Still, “they’re no more effective than the people running them are.”

Even with good efforts by security officials, he says, 100 percent of the weapons won’t be kept out by metal detectors. “If a student wants to beat the system, students are smart enough to know how to beat the system and bypass that entrance with the metal detector,” he says.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, Atlanta school and police officials said that the weapon was a small handgun and that it appeared at least three rounds were fired. They were investigating the possibility that the shooter and victim may have been part of groups that had gang affiliations.

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They were also still investigating whether the metal detectors at Price were working and what screening of students was performed on Thursday. In general, principals set the policy, and administrators and staff who monitor the screening process are all trained, officials said.

Metal detectors are most common in urban school districts. About 12 percent of high schools, 9 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of primary schools in the United States did random checks with metal detectors in 2009-10, according to a survey of school principals reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. Fewer than 2 percent of middle schools and 5 percent of high schools required students to pass through metal detectors daily.

School systems considering using metal detectors have to weigh carefully both the costs and the philosophical debates about whether metal detectors belong in schools at all.

It’s not the metal detectors themselves, but the manpower hours that cost a lot.

Detectors can be purchased for about $5,000. But a report by the US Department of Justice in 1999 noted that New York City had to fund 100 additional security-officer hours per week for each school that screened for weapons with metal detectors. First-period start times also had to be staggered over 90 minutes to accommodate the time it took to screen the students.

Civil rights groups have raised concerns – both before and after the Newtown incident – that an increased reliance on armed officers, metal detectors, and other security measures can have the unintended consequence of making students feel less safe and welcome.

Schools are “looking more and more like prisons,” says Jim Eichner, managing director of programs for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization in Washington. While metal detectors might be appropriate for some schools, he says, “putting a lot of metal detectors in schools sends the wrong message,” and it uses funds that could otherwise be put toward hiring more counselors or psychologists to help students. “Communities need to think hard about that trade-off,” he says.

“My high school seemed like its own personal prison,” testified Edward Ward, a college student from Chicago, at a congressional subcommittee hearing in December exploring discipline, security, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

“From the moment we stepped through the doors in the morning, we were faced with metal detectors, X-ray machines, and uniformed security,” Mr. Ward said about the time he attended Orr Academy High School. “Although I was an honor student, I felt constantly in a state of alert, afraid to make even the smallest mistake or create a noise that could enable the security officers to serve me with a detention.”

In some situations metal detectors are a necessary component of security, and when they are used well, they can prevent a significant number of weapons from getting onto campus, Bond says.

However, there are anecdotes of attacks with guns and knives in schools despite the presence of metal detectors, according to the website of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland:

“In 2008 in Memphis, a TV news reporter interviewed a teacher who indicated that school officials ran students through a metal detector that they allegedly knew was broken even after two school shooting incidents in the district,” the website notes. Also in 2008, it says, “in Milwaukee, a 15-year-old female student was stabbed several times in a restroom on the same day a $50,000 metal detector debuted at the school. Officials reportedly said that the detector was only used on tardy students that day while staff were being trained on using the detector. It was unknown whether the stabbing suspects had or had not been screened.”

In 2004, a student was shot and killed by a fellow student in a Washington, D.C., high school that had a metal detector, The Baltimore Sun reported.

While metal detectors are rare in schools overall, “it’s not like you’re either doing metal detectors or doing nothing,” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “The No. 1 way we find weapons in schools is when a kid reports it to a trusted adult.”

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