Suburban Schools Reject Metal Detectors

A student passes through a metal detector at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington. No other area school system uses them.
A student passes through a metal detector at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington. No other area school system uses them. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

In spring 1991, after a teenage girl stabbed a classmate in the cafeteria of an Anacostia school, the D.C. Board of Education voted to install metal detectors at the front entrances of 10 middle and high schools.

No other school system in the region has embraced the technology, even as metal detectors have multiplied in courthouses, museums and other public buildings across the region over the past two decades.

Many school officials view metal detectors as costly, impractical and fallible. To suburban parents, they conjure up images of armed camps. Even at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where three loaded guns were found in a locker last week, consensus is building against them.

"I don't want my son to come to school through metal detectors. That's prison," said Alex Colina, speaking to several hundred other parents at a community meeting Monday night.

Metal detectors are notably absent from the binge of security enhancements at public schools across the nation since 1999, the year of the Columbine High School massacre.

Other safety measures have proliferated in this decade, an initiative fed by fears of terrorism, the 2002 sniper attacks and several other school shootings. Security cameras, school-based police officers and locked entryways all are far more common now than a decade ago, according to the latest Justice Department findings on secondary school security, released in 2007. Schools now routinely conduct emergency drills, sometimes enlisting a teacher to stalk the campus and rattle doorknobs in the manner of an intruder.

But they have stopped short of metal detectors.

The topic came up Monday night at Einstein. A procession of parents, unnerved by the discovery of weapons at their school, pleaded with administrators to pledge that it would never happen again. One mother asked, "What are you all doing to assure us as parents that our kids are safe?"

The response from James Fernandez, the school principal, was rhetorical: "Do you want me searching your kids every day?"

Metal detectors appeared in urban high schools in the 1980s as a response to rising gang violence. The devices were common in New York, Detroit and other large cities when the D.C. school board embraced them 17 years ago, after a pair of stabbings at middle schools. Now they are in every D.C. middle and high school, along with X-ray machines, added in 1998 to scan book bags, coats and purses.

D.C. school officials say the detectors are a proven deterrent. They note that no firearm has been discovered inside a District school this academic year.

The trend toward metal detectors never spread much beyond a core group of urban schools, however. Nationwide, the share of secondary school students who walk through metal detectors at school has increased only slightly, from 9 percent in 1999 to 11 percent in 2005, according to the Justice Department.

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