We all know by now that the high school in the affluent enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park is under siege from bomb and weapons threats. The FBI has joined local police in a so-far fruitless effort to catch whoever is behind a series of written bomb threats, text message threats and two incidents in the last month involving live ammunition.
But here's what few people know. Even after the local police chief told school officials that metal detectors were the best way to protect children from smuggled guns and bombs, the school district opted not to install them. They now offer inconvenience and expense as arguments against metal detectors, both a little hard to believe in one of the nation's most affluent school districts.
But they do mention another reason that is both completely believable and barely comprehensible. They say metal detectors are too "urban." What they really mean, though they don't use the word, is that metal detectors are too ghetto. And, yes, metal detectors are ghetto, no question. But does that mean they don't belong in Highland Park High School?
Helen Williams, director of communications for the district, told me last week: "When you've got a situation in an urban district where you're dealing with gangs and things that come with that, it probably is a more major consideration."
She said metal detectors are appropriate to a different kind of threat than what Highland Park High School is facing. "We've not had a history of students bringing guns on campus, and that is the primary reason for having metal detectors. That has not historically been a problem [here]."
Well, not until a month ago, when a student found a cache of 39 live bullets in a bathroom. Last week another student found two bullets in her backpack. This is in a context of cascading explicit threats in both written notes and text messages to students.
After the private organization, Crime Stoppers, began publicizing an offer of reward money, someone sent the organization a note warning that the campaign of terror at the school was "not a hoax" and was "building."
So we have someone with easy access to the school. He, she or they have produced manuscript notes that the FBI labs have been unable to tie to anyone. Whoever is behind this has been able to send text message threats to students that the FBI has been unable to trace. The threat delivered to Crime Stoppers would seem to illustrate both defiance and a taste for drama. And the most serious threats, the bullets, are an explicit demonstration of an ability to bring weaponry into the school.
Requiring everyone entering and leaving the building to pass through metal detectors, a commonplace in Dallas schools, would provide Highland Park schools with their only shot at spotting guns, ammo or most bombs before they enter a school. But Williams told me the "cultural factor" was a deal-killer.
"We really pride ourselves on trusting our students and having an environment where the school is a community center," she said. "There is a psychological part of having people go through metal detectors. I am sure that when you visit DISD schools, as when I have, that that's just part of the routine there."
Yes. So how does that mean they can't become routine in the Park Cities? Last week Pamela Kripke, mother of a Highland Park High School student and a freelance writer, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post saying University Park Police Chief Gary Adams had told her that metal detectors were an absolute necessity at the school.
Kripke said in the HuffPo piece that Adams had told her he could not guarantee the safety of students without metal detectors. She said he told her he was trying to borrow some for the district until it could arrange to buy its own.
I spoke to Adams several days after Kripke's piece appeared causing consternation among those residents and officials who saw it. He was eager to convey that he had not issued some edict to the school district that the district had defied. But he was forthright about what he did say to Kripke.
"There was a discussion in a previous meeting before I talked to that other reporter [Kripke]," Adams said. "She asked me about metal detectors and if I thought they needed them. I said at this point in time after we found .22 bullets, I thought we did."
Adams confirmed Kripke's account in terms of his willingness to search for loaners. He said he told school Superintendent Dawson Orr he "would do a little research and see if I could determine where they could find supportable magnetometers."
Adams told me the school system decided the metal detectors were not logistically feasible and could not be installed "in time." In time for what he did not say. He added, "We use them for court security and our jail."
So somehow it has been logistically and financially feasible for University Park to install metal detectors for the protection of court personnel, public visitors to the courts and everybody at the jail but not for students, staff and public visitors to the high school where the threats are directed.
Kripke's piece last week was a combination of solid reporting with the plaintive cry of a mother who must send her own child into this school. She wrote:
"I call the Chief of Police. He assures me that within two days, metal detectors would be installed on campus. He sounds relieved. Without them, he says he can't know if a weapon is in the school. He 'cannot guarantee the safety of anyone in the building.'
"Two days later, when detectors are not installed, I call him to find out where they are. He tells me that he provided school administrators with detailed information about how to purchase them. 'I even tried to borrow them, meantime, from other districts, the airport,' says Chief Gary Adams ...
"We should have them. If it's going overboard, we should go overboard. Chief Adams has worked as a police officer for more than 35 years, and as Chief, here and elsewhere, for 20."
My own kid attended a city high school where they had metal detectors. They're anything but foolproof. Williams raised the issue of properly staffing them, and that's entirely legitimate. The teacher at my son's school who told me this story is retired now, so I guess I can tell it:
She told me she had seen guns in backpacks of gang guys. I asked her what she did about it. She said, "Nothing. I'm not going to mess with those guys."
I asked my son if he was afraid of the gang kids. He said not at all. Everybody knew just never to meet their eyes.
People in the Park Cities have gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money providing their children with an atmosphere that is not like the surrounding city. One argument against metal detectors is that they help create exactly the kind of penal lock-down culture that people move to the Park Cities to escape.
And, look, metal detectors are ghetto. No question about it. But where do we think the ghetto ends these days? Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people and injured 13 including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, was not a gang kid. James Holmes, who killed 12 in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20 wasn't a gang member. Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six teachers last December in Newtown, Connecticut, wasn't in a gang.
Williams, the spokesperson for Highland Park schools, told me school personnel have not ruled out metal detectors forever. Meanwhile, they are using hand-held wands to search any "suspicious persons." But the person behind the threats has been walking all over this school, shoulder to shoulder, right in their faces every day without arousing enough suspicion to get caught.
Whoever is doing this is not going to come into Highland Park High School dressed as a Hollywood Blood or Crip. What is it the school officials think they would spot that might initiate a wand search?
I could get all nasty about this. I almost always do when I write about the Park Cities. I don't know what my excuse is. Bad Personality Syndrome.
But the horrific images of the past year, heavy and sickening in all our hearts, are somehow just too sobering for invective. The threats that people in the Park Cities are living with now should sadden and alarm us all.
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It's also understandable that people there would resist the invasion of this terrible licking flame of danger, which of course must seem to them to be coming from without, given how hard they have striven to insulate themselves from just such things. But there's the thing, Park Cities people. It's not coming from outside. It's coming from the bosom of your own community.
Someone who knows you, who is familiar to you, who moves among you without arousing suspicion, is providing you with warning after warning that the very worst thing may happen. Something is "building." The threats are "not a hoax." He or she or they have shown you the ammunition. This is when you do everything in your power to save the lives of your children and the people who teach them.
Williams told me finding a gun in the school would have been "alarming" but said they had found only "a handful of small-caliber bullets." She described Kripke to me as "quite verbal" about the metal detectors. She said, "This is kind of her one-woman crusade, to tell you the truth."
Fine. But tell me. If the unthinkable does happen, if children are shot and killed with .22-caliber bullets and the floors run red with their blood, what will Kripke be then?