Commission Recommends DISD Get Rid Of Metal Detectors. But Do They Work?

As Matthew Haag noted yesterday over at the Morning News' education blog, DISD's Citizen Budget Review Commission made several recommendations at last week's board briefing for how the district might cut costs. The most eye-catching: consider getting rid of metal detectors in middle and high schools.

The commission's report calls metal detectors "fairly unique to DISD" and suggested that they were largely ineffective, given how many other unguarded entrances there typically are to each building. It added that the staffers being used to man the detectors could probably be better used elsewhere, and that a detector-free entrance might help students get to class on time. Finally, it said, "their removal will make the school appear more welcoming and remove the negative external perception concerns that DISD high schools must use them in order to provide a safe environment."

The commission recommended polling principals, teachers, and maybe even students about metal detectors, and considering security cameras as a lower-cost alternative. It also suggested that DISD police look at actual incidents versus the cost of maintaining the detectors -- "both monetary and to a school's culture."

Metal detectors in schools have been debated for decades, of course, and as DISD looks for a way to deal with their current $34.8 million budget shortfall, the board will surely be scrounging around for any way to save a little cash. But won't a lack of metal detectors make DISD students less safe? Isn't there any good data on how well they actually work?

Not much, as it happens. And the results of the existing studies are rather muddy. Basically, there's still no good information on whether metal detectors do what they're supposed to: prevent or deter crime. And quite a bit of data suggests that they may indeed help to create a perception that a school is unsafe -- not so much in the community at large, as the commission suggested, but among the students themselves.

In February of last year, the Journal of School Health published an article in which researchers looked at 15 years of studies about metal detector use in schools. In one study those researchers looked at, a little more than half of school administrators surveyed said metal detectors were "effective overall" and only 32 percent of them thought metal detectors were "somewhat or very effective" at reducing violent crime, which you'd think would be the entire point of a metal detector.

Another study showed no association whatsoever with the use of metal detectors and a student's risk of theft or assault. Yet another found "a significant beneficial effect, linking metal detector use to a decrease in the likelihood that students reported carrying a weapon while in school (7.8 percent vs. 13.8 percent)." But in that study, there was no change in the likelihood that those students would carry a weapon outside of school or take part in fights.

And heightened security measures do seem to paradoxically make students feel less safe, according to no less than four separate studies the Journal of School Health surveyed. A 1995 survey of 12- to 19-year-old students was typical: It found that metal detectors and security guards were "directly correlated with increased student perceptions of violence in the school."

Race and class obviously play a large, if often tacit, role in these debates. A separate study found that schools with large populations of poor and minority students were more likely to require metal detectors.

"At the high school level, we treat all kids as potential criminals, although minority students are more likely to pass through metal detectors to get to class," one of the study's authors, Aaron Kupchik, told the University of Delaware's campus publication. "At the elementary and middle-school level, we're only afraid of some kids -- and that's the poor ones."

The New York chapter of the ACLU took a different tack, coauthoring a study last year with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Make the Road New York. They looked at six "at-risk" schools in New York City that have chosen not to use metal detectors, "aggressive policing" or "harsh disciplinary policies." They claimed those schools enjoyed better attendance, retention and graduation rates, as well as "dramatically fewer" suspensions and "criminal incidents." But New York City's Department of Education immediately disputed that graduation rates were actually higher at the schools studied.

To sum up: DISD's been using metal detectors for more than 20 years with no evidence that they work. Now the commission is suggesting they consider taking them out, with no evidence that they don't. Progress.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan