How Effective are Metal Detectors in Preventing School Tragedies

In the wake of a shooting incident at Price Middle School, questions are being asked about the effectiveness of metal detectors as a deterrent to school violence. According to reports, the Atlanta, GA, school had metal detectors installed, but they weren’t working properly at the time of the incident. But even if they had been working as intended, could they have stopped a 15-year-old student from shooting another student in the neck?

The Price incident is just the latest in a string of tragic events that have occurred at American schools in recent years. Just a month earlier, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 26 children and staff members before turning the gun on himself. The massacre prompted calls for tighter security in schools, including widespread installation of metal detectors, and in some circles, the calls have only become louder.

In North Dakota, for instance, government has been asked for $10 million to fund school security across the state. According to the Bismarck Tribune, this would provide each school district with $25,000 to purchase metal detectors, with money left over for additional security measures. Most of this funding, one presumes, would go on staffing the detectors, which is a far greater cost to schools than the actual devices.

Nevertheless, there are those who see this as a knee-jerk reaction, and as a policy that is doomed to failure. As early as 2006, a report issued by NBC News highlighted some of the flaws in relying on metal detectors. Although the machines will keep out most types of guns and knives, their effectiveness depends on reliable maintenance and the competency of those who are staffing the detectors. Furthermore, it is difficult to justify the expense for many smaller schools, such as the Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA, where a gunman shot 10 girls, killing five.

There is also a psychological aspect to the issue. The implicit messages that result from the installation of metal detectors may not be positive ones. Parents – and students – may see them as a sign that the school has a violence problem, or, as the NBC report suggests, that the school is now perfectly safe. That, of course, will not necessarily be the case.

Setting aside concerns about costs and other possible implications, the bottom line is whether or not metal detectors can actually prevent school shootings. The evidence to suggest that they can, and do, may be hard to come by, as potential shooters who are deterred by their presence won’t show up in the statistics. Unfortunately, the evidence to show that metal detectors are probably a white elephant is much easier to find.

The Price Middle School is not the first location where the devices have proven ineffective. At Red Lake Senior High School in 2005, 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise strolled past detectors at the school gates and fatally shot five students and a teacher, before committing suicide. He was able to do this by simply gunning down the security guard at the front of the school.

It is highly likely that incidents of this nature could happen again, despite the presence of high-tech security. School shooter Luke Woodham was asked whether a metal detector might have stopped his murderous rampage at Pearl High School in 1997. Woodham’s reply: “I would have walked right through it.”

Perhaps there is a better way to solve the problem than by spending countless millions on technology that may or may not work. Imagine, for instance, how much counselling the same money might provide for the kind of troubled teens who regularly appear on the trigger end of the gun. Imagine if teachers could receive advanced training in recognising the all-too-common warning signs, or if students were encouraged to discuss their problems more openly. According to Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, “The number-one way we find weapons in schools is when a kid reports it to a trusted adult.”  And imagine if security concerns began with a closer look at the Second Amendment, instead of at Secondary School children.

It is ironic that education is so often seen as a panacea for society’s ills, and yet, on this issue that affects schools so intimately, the task is being shunted elsewhere. Perhaps it is time sufficient funding was made available to ensure that the responsibility for preventing school violence is returned to where it surely belongs.