Although a spate of threats has some Highland Park High School parents clamoring for the installation of metal detectors, experts say such a move could do more harm than good.
That’s the opinion of Annette Fuentes, who spent two years researching her 2011 book, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse. The California-based author cited a study conducted by Matthew Mayer and Peter Leone, who teach special education at Rutgers University and the University of Maryland, respectively. They found that on-campus metal detectors create a “cycle of disorder.”
“Those schools may actually create the kind of jail-like, unwelcoming environment that makes kids feel less safe,” Fuentes said. “It’s counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you think about creating an environment with these prison-like conditions. Kids walk around feeling that something bad is going to happen, that they are under surveillance, and that they have to be worried. They can’t be secure and safe.”
Fuentes said there is no definitive count of how many public schools use metal detectors. Kenneth Trump, who runs the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm based in Cleveland, said the few schools that use them on a day-to-day basis have a history of weapons-related issues.
“And in those cases, it’s largely an effort to plug the dike and try to deal with a chronic problem,” Trump said.
Pam Kripke, whose daughter is a student at Highland Park, wrote a column about on-campus security last week for the Huffington Post website. The title was “Ammunition Found in Wealthy Dallas High School; Where Are the Metal Detectors?” The column debuted Friday, three days after Kripke unsuccessfully pitched a story to D Magazine with a suggested title of “Why Highland Park Won’t Install Metal Detectors.”
In the column, Kripke said she talked to University Park Police Chief Gary Adams after a box of .22-caliber shells was found in a boys bathroom at the high school on Feb. 27. She said Adams told her metal detectors would be installed within two days. When that didn’t happen, she wrote, Adams said he’d provided school administrators with detailed information on how to purchase them.
But Adams told Park Cities People that Kripke’s account of their conversation was a slight mischaracterization.
“I told her that I felt like, at that time, the threat was elevated,” Adams said, “and it might be a good idea to have metal detectors, that I had worked on trying to locate some metal detectors for that Monday. We have some wands, and we used to have a portable magnetometer. I was looking for some portable magnetometers.”
Adams said he was not able to find any on short notice; he advised HPISD Superintendent Dawson Orr’s staff to search for some on the Internet.
“You can’t just magically install magnetometers or walk-through metal detectors in a school overnight,” Adams said. “But we have the wands. The school, as a matter of fact, bought wands.”
HPISD spokeswoman Helen Williams confirmed that. She also said principal Walter Kelly declined to tell The Bagpipe, the high school newspaper, how often the wands are being used.
As for airport-style walk-through metal detectors, the website for Garland-based Garrett Metal Detectors lists four models. Their suggested retail prices range from $4,500 to $5,500. But Trump said there is much more to consider than the initial cost.
“It sounds good, it feels good, but when you start talking about how you implement it,” Trump said, “are you going to run it 24/7? Are you going to scan everybody? How are you going to staff it? Are you going to be able to have people guard every other entrance in the building while you’re scanning in one? How do you prevent somebody from coming in the night before, dropping stuff off, and then coming in clean?”
Fuentes said metal detectors would have done nothing to prevent the tragedies at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
“A metal detector doesn’t keep out someone who is determined to get in the school,” she said. “If someone is carrying a gun, they’re not going to present it at the metal detector for inspection. So it doesn’t even bear up under scrutiny as a sensible, logical strategy. But it makes people feel safer.”
Fuentes said a better alternative to a “jail-like environment” is making sure that administrators and faculty are familiar with the students in their school. That way, potential issues can be dealt with.
“At Columbine, it was well known, for a long time, that these two young men had serious problems,” Fuentes said. “The principal and teachers knew that they were making violent videos that celebrated guns; they were talking about doing damage to other students. These things were discussed, and they were ignored.”
Trump said the No. 1 way to find out about weapons in schools is from kids who come forward to tell an adult that they trust. This week’s increase of the HPISD reward to $30,000 — thanks to an anonymous donation of $20,000 — may help in that regard. But Trump also touted the benefits of awareness.
“The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained and highly alert staff and student body,” he said, “but that just doesn’t give the guarantee that people want.”