Metal Detectors in Schools

Safety vs. Stigma
Kenny Flores, Dennis Belen Morales, and Mamadou Diallo (Natasa Bansagi)

Before first period begins at 8:09 a.m., Dennis Belen Morales, Kenny Flores, and Mamadou Diallo pass through metal detectors at Alfred E. Smith Career & Technical Education High School in the Bronx. They don’t like it, but it’s been part of their routine for nearly three or four years now.

“I’ve never felt safe because of a metal detector,” said Belen Morales, 19.

Indeed, between March and early April, students were reported to have brought guns to city schools at least four times: twice in Jamaica, Queens, once in Brooklyn, and once on the Upper East Side. Not every school in New York City has metal detectors, of course. But plenty do. According to a representative from the Department of Education, about 88 school campuses and 300 separate schools use them full time or part time. Any middle or high school, however, may be randomly scanned, the representative said.

Not everyone appreciates the presence of these scanners on school premises. Differing opinions exist and they’ve trickled all the way up to the mayor’s office. In July 2015, the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline issued a report called “Safety with Dignity” that recommended putting measures in place to “improve the scanning process and remove scanners where appropriate.” For example, the report found that there are currently no written instructions on adding or removing scanners in schools, and recommends creating such guidelines.

Ella Colley, a reporter who’s covered metal detectors at Inside Schools, a website whose staff conducts school visits and interviews to provide information on the city’s public schools, said that a lot of scanners were installed in the 1990s in big schools, and when smaller schools replaced these big schools—the metal detectors stayed.

Belen Morales, a senior, started a petition last year to end the use of metal detectors in public schools. To him, the issue is about more than just the scanners, though; it’s about equalizing the high school experience for students across the city, since some schools have them and others don’t. According to Belen Morales, this could mean installing scanners in all schools or, alternatively, removing them from all campuses. The key, here, is having a unique standard across the board.

“If you want to prevent everything, why don’t you protect every school and not just a few? That’s what I’m trying to get to where either you remove them or you put them everywhere so that everybody can be safe,” Belen Morales said.

In fact, a local law signed in October will shed light on existing efforts to remove metal detectors in specific schools, by increasing the reporting responsibilities of the Department of Education. For example, “a list of school buildings” with permanent and random metal detector checks would have to be submitted, as well as a list of schools that have asked that their metal detectors be removed, and the list of schools that have been granted their removal request.

But Belen Morales said it almost doesn’t matter if a school has a detector or not. He said he’s heard about some incidents of students bringing weapons into schools through the back or side doors, for example, or even bringing them in pieces and building them up when inside.

And Belen Morales is not alone in his objections. A Facebook event page showed a protest scheduled for May 14 at the John Jay campus in Park Slope to show opposition to metal detectors.

Some students, school staffers and faculty members, of course, feel differently. An unnamed teacher at the Richard Grossley campus in Queens, where a student brought a .38-caliber revolver to school in March, said he would feel safer with metal detectors.

Derek Jackson, director of law enforcement at Teamsters Union 237, said the metal detectors are in place for safety purposes and that they serve as the only defense for school safety agents, who are unarmed.

“People are claiming that we over search, we over scan, we harass them, that’s such nonsense,” said Jackson, who oversees 5,000 school safety agents. “We feel that we are stopping violent children from killing and injuring other children. We think we’re saving people’s lives.”

He says the union’s position is to keep and increase metal detectors, but that he agrees there should be an analysis of where they should be placed. “Maybe we can take it out of this school, maybe we can transfer it to another school, maybe we can take it out of school A permanently, but maybe school B showed that it needs it,” Jackson said.

Many students, meanwhile, are still not in favor of keeping the machines. Flores, a junior, said he knows there are metal detectors in airports, for example, but he doesn’t “see the point” of having kids go through this at school, too.

“I would like to see the school thinking that the kids are responsible to go to school and actually learn and not think that the students would do anything bad in there,” Flores said.

Diallo, a senior, said he understands that neighborhood characteristics and previous problems at a school may be a reason to keep metal detectors, but he said that he believes there are other ways to address safety concerns.

“It could be another way around, maybe more security, or another way around, other than just metal detectors and having us move around all day like that,” Diallo said.

The schoolmates jumped in to reinforce a point made by Flores about how current students shouldn’t have to go through metal detectors because of the way the neighborhood was when they were first installed. “The times have changed. Shouldn’t the metal detectors be reevaluated?” Belen Morales said. “Why are they still going off past experiences?”


Natasa Bansagi