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Alexandria school board approves metal detectors in schools

Alexandria Police Department school resource officers walk outside T.C. Williams High School in June 2021. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The Alexandria City School Board approved adding weapon-detection systems in schools as part of a pilot program designed to limit risk and address rising concerns about weapons in schools.

The scanners, which use engineering and artificial intelligence to detect weapons, will be added to four schools for a trial period beginning in May. The board voted unanimously, with W. Christopher Harris absent, to move forward with the pilot program Thursday night.

While school leaders have emphasized that the move was preventive rather than reactive, the approval follows incidents involving weapons at the city’s schools and after a 6-year-old brought a gun to Richneck Elementary in January and allegedly shot a teacher in the classroom. Metal detectors were installed at Richneck after the shooting and are planned for all schools in the Newport News system.

Federal data released earlier this year showed that schools are increasingly turning to new protocols and equipment to address safety concerns. The data, from the National Center for Education Statistics, showed that 43 percent of schools reported in November that they had panic buttons or silent alarms with a direct connection to law enforcement, an increase from 29 percent during the 2017-2018 school year. Nearly 65 percent of schools now have anonymous or confidential threat-reporting systems. A smaller portion — about 6 percent of schools — reported using metal detectors in schools.

“We understand that there may be hesitancy with some stakeholders regarding implementation of the equipment,” said Alicia Hart, the school system’s chief of facilities and operations. “I want to reiterate that the goal of this program is to act as a deterrent for weapons entering our facilities. It is not and will not become the sole process in our overall safety and security posture.”

In Alexandria city schools, there were 28 reported incidents of weapons during the 2021-2022 school year, and more may have gone unreported, officials said. Last week, Alexandria City High School was locked down after a teacher discovered a 14-year-old student with an unloaded handgun, city officials said. The student was charged with possession of a firearm on school property.

Board members initially questioned the program’s logistics and its impact on students.

“We’re not supposed to be reacting to anything. This is supposed to be preventive,” student representative Emily Milton said in February. “But this will feel like a reaction.” Milton said the scanners would feel like a “punishment” to students.

On Thursday night, Hart presented findings from a community survey on the topic that found wide support of the detectors in schools. About 85 percent of the more than 4,300 respondents supported implementing the screening equipment in all or some schools, and 58 percent supported use in all schools.

School officials estimated each detector would cost about $13,000 for mobile equipment and $60,000 for fixed equipment. The pilot program would use a combination of the two.

“We need to understand, the entire city needs to understand, it is about the safety of their kids. It’s not aesthetics, not what it looks like, not what it costs,” school board member Willie F. Bailey Sr. (District A) said Thursday.

Installation of the scanners is scheduled for April at Alexandria City High School’s King Street and Minnie Howard campuses, along with Francis C. Hammond and George Washington middle schools.