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.
The argument against metal detectors in schools starts with the bottleneck they can create at the front entrance, which might have to accommodate 2,000 students in 15 minutes. Then there's the matter of staffing the machine over the course of the school day.
School officials note that the typical high school may have 15 to 20 entrances, none of which can be locked from the inside because of fire regulations.
The Montgomery County school system, like many of its suburban neighbors, has introduced surveillance cameras and police officers in many of its schools over the past decade. Visitors no longer get past the front office without signing in. Schools now conduct four emergency drills a year. There are no metal detectors.
"Number one, they're expensive. Number two, once you put them in, they have to be manned all the time. And number three, we have so many entrances to our schools, it makes it very difficult to do," said Robert Hellmuth, director of school safety and security in Montgomery. "The point is that I'm not sure how effective they are."
Perhaps most important, metal detectors are not particularly popular among parents and students in Montgomery.
Virgie Barnes, an Einstein parent, said she sees quite enough of metal detectors at her job in the federal government. Put magnetometers at school, she said, and "you would have a line of kids out to 7-Eleven."
Freddy Mancilla, 18, the school's student government president, said his classmates "would cope with it" if metal detectors were introduced at Einstein, "but I don't think that's the first option anyone's asking for."
Suburban school officials are quick to point out that metal detectors have not completely stemmed the flow of weapons into D.C. schools. In February 2004, James Richardson, 17, was shot and killed near the cafeteria of Ballou Senior High School, a campus equipped with both metal detectors and X-ray machines. The shooter sneaked the gun in through a side door.
Audrey Williams, a D.C. schools spokeswoman, said the technology "drastically reduces the chances of weapons getting inside a school building." The only drawback, she said, is the backup caused "when a large number of students come to school five minutes before the bell rings."
Metal detectors have yielded both success and failure. In February 2004, a D.C. police officer caught two students who were trying to sneak guns into Wilson High School after they were seen conspicuously avoiding the metal detector. But in September 2003, twin brothers were arrested only after they had brought a loaded handgun into the Dunbar High School cafeteria, apparently smuggling it in through a side door.
Reports of guns in schools remain comparatively rare in the region. Prince George's has confiscated 10 firearms since fall 2006. Montgomery school officials report only one firearm in that span apart from the three recovered last week. The Anne Arundel, Howard and Loudoun school systems report one gun each.
School officials greet such reports with skepticism. Federal law requires school systems to report firearm violations as a condition of funding, but the incidents are mostly self-reported.
The most recent report on guns in Maryland schools, for example, shows no gun confiscated in a Howard County school in the 2006-07 academic year, even though a student was arrested with a gun in June 2007 at Hammond High School. Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the Howard school system, said the incident might have been omitted because it happened so late in the school year.