Metal detectors in schools: Source of safety or anxiety?

Students entering Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., must pass through metal detectors. Although some people say the devices and increase students’ anxiety, most Wyandotte High students like their school.
Students entering Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., must pass through metal detectors. Although some people say the devices and increase students’ anxiety, most Wyandotte High students like their school. The Kansas City Star

Something is wrong, Domanique Clayton remembers thinking.

Where are the metal detectors?

Teachers inside the doors at Hickman Mills’ Ruskin High School were waving her in with generous first-day-of-school greetings. Was she late?

Since her middle school days, she and the rest of her senior classmates in Hickman Mills had passed through metal detectors every day and handed over their backpacks to be searched.

They fit the profile, after all.

The southeast Kansas City district is 77 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic, and 86 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

In America, black students are five times more likely than their white peers to have to walk through metal detectors into school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Hispanic students are more than twice as likely.

Students from households making less than $15,000 a year are nearly four times more likely to go through such daily searches than those from households earning $50,000 or more.

“I kept thinking someone was going to stop me,” Clayton said.

But Hickman Mills’ superintendent and school board, she soon learned, decided to go without metal detectors this year.

The decision, which Clayton and some of her classmates described as a relief, was not easy, nor was it without controversy.

And the two remaining districts in the area that still use metal detectors each day — the Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., districts — carry on the practice in part because it is what most of their parents want.

Hickman Mills made its change, Superintendent Dennis Carpenter said, even though 65 percent of district parents surveyed over the summer wanted metal detectors to stay.

“We are so institutionalized about the urban child,” Carpenter said. “We are creating a militarized environment, a prison-type feel (that has an) impact on the school’s culture.”

At Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., students ducked in out of the rain on a dark morning last week to take their place in line inside the foyer.

Like frequent airline passengers, they knew the routine. They put their identification badges on. Any belt buckles, phones or other metal went into their backpacks for the X-ray machines, and they knew how long to pause before walking through the body scanner.

The students know, junior Kala Alexander said, that there is always some anger and fear somewhere in the neighborhoods that could try to come into their school.

“There’s always going to be some violence, some negativity,” she said. If anyone wanted to remove Wyandotte’s metal detectors, she said, her first question would be, “What are they replacing them with?”

Metal detectors have limitations, said Rick Armstrong, the chief of the Kansas City, Kan., school district’s Police Department. They have to be just a piece of a greater school and community safety plan.

But they are a critical piece, he said.

“It would be foolhardy to say there is no risk,” Armstrong said. “If a gun gets in, I would not want to be in the position of making the decision not to have (metal detectors). We have the responsibility to deal with reality, not perception.”

Stoking anxiety

By no means did school psychology professor Stephen Brock want to overstep his bounds.

He was about to describe the consequences of school metal detectors.

The California State University-Sacramento professor was about to explain why the National Association of School Psychologists encourages schools to build their safety nets without relying on the daily searches.

“But I understand the heavy responsibility when parents send their kids to our schools,” he said. “I’m willing to agree that there may be certain circumstances where physical measures are needed.”

That said, he referred to volumes of research that are ambiguous on whether metal detectors actually reduce the risk of violence in schools.

Numerous accounts nationwide — including an incident in Hickman Mills last year — tell of weapons making their way around detectors. And the degree to which detectors discourage students who might otherwise conceal a weapon is unknown.

There is more tangible research, however, that the use of metal detectors can raise the level of fear in students.

The efforts schools make to connect adults to students, employ specially trained officers and resolve peer conflicts can do more for school safety without as much risk of stoking anxiety, he said.

“As a rule, school is a safe place to be,” Brock said.

Of all school-age youth homicides, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, fewer than 2 percent happen at or on the way to or from school.

A survey by The Star of 47 area school districts and charter middle and high schools found many increases in security measures — much of it in response to threats raised in tragic shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook.

Districts lock their schools, and in many cases they have remodeled buildings with secure entries. Almost all of them have an armed school resource officer or other specially trained officer present in their middle and high schools.

Some have hand-held metal detectors available to use in case of specific threats. Hickman Mills will still pull out its metal detectors if there is a specific concern.

But airport-type security, which would be highly visible to students and the community, remains an action most schools don’t want to take.

One of the first changes the Independence School District made when it took over Van Horn High School from Kansas City after a boundary change in 2008 was to remove its metal detectors.

“It had everything to do with expectations,” Independence spokeswoman Nancy Lewis said. “We wanted our students to know that they were in a safe and secure place to learn and reach their goals. The metal detectors did not send that message.”

More than half of the students who had attended Van Horn lived inside the Kansas City district’s boundary and were pulled back to Kansas City schools. The Van Horn that Independence opened without detectors had 480 fewer black and Hispanic students.

In the three area educational systems that use metal detectors each day — the two Kansas Citys’ districts and DeLaSalle charter alternative high school — 82.5 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. Eighty-eight percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

All the other districts and charters in the area combined are 24 percent black and Hispanic and give 37 percent of students free or reduced-price lunch. The schools not using metal detectors include some charters and districts such as Hickman Mills, Center and Grandview that have demographic profiles similar to the Kansas Citys’ districts’.

“Metal detectors are symptomatic of a bigger problem,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

Poor and minority children are more likely than other children to live in “inner-city neighborhoods plagued with violent crime,” she said. “They live in communities under siege by drug and gang behavior, and the concern is it will carry over” into school.

But a school is its own community, she said. “And the leaders have the ability to define, shape and nurture its culture. It’s your family.”

Feeling safe

Metal detectors began arriving in some schools in the early 1990s, first in Kansas City, which was struggling under a federal desegregation order to attract suburban and private school students into its array of magnet schools.

“We’ve got to have safe schools if we are going to attract and keep people,” then-Superintendent Walter L. Marks told the federal judge. “I don’t think you can, in an urban setting, desegregate schools until you convince the people you’re attracting that they’re safe places for kids.”

Detectors became one way for schools to demonstrate visible attention to safety.

Twenty years later, Superintendent Steve Green is not hearing any desire from parents or students to remove them. Any changes would have to be explored with a lot of community discussion.

“I always want to get the pulse of the public’s comfort about security,” he said. “There is a balance. We want to be realistic about threats and circumstances. If there were a strong desire to change, we would look down that path.”

A group of Wyandotte High students in Kansas City, Kan., after passing through the morning ritual, said they like their school. They like most of their teachers. They talked about their budding post-high school plans with college aspirations in computer engineering, biochemistry, culinary arts and psychology.

The detectors, 16-year-old junior Melvin Thomas said, “make us feel safe.”

In Ruskin in south Kansas City, 17-year-old senior Kristal Whitaker remembered the back-to-school rally where Carpenter repeated the district’s decision to pull out the metal detectors.

All the superintendent’s reasons came tumbling down, but one stood out for her.

“He said, ‘I would not send my kids to a school with metal detectors,’” she said.

She and some fellow Ruskin classmates said they like their school. They like most of their teachers. They talked of college plans to study business administration, journalism and biomedical engineering.

And, they said, they feel safe.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.