Loaded Gun Found in Student Locker Causes Concern and Raises Questions About Metal Detectors in Schools

Three students were arrested in Ellensburg High School in Ellensburg, Washington after school officials acted promptly and notified police when they received information about the weapon from a student. As is common in this type of situation, some parents raised issues about how the weapon was brought undetected onto campus and wondered if metal detectors were needed.

I recently had discussions on this topic with a school superintendent from a small rural school district in a community with a violent crime rate far below the national average. I told him that I did not think that metal detection would be appropriate for his district unless they began recovering weapons from students on a regular basis or surveys of students indicated they were having an increase in weapons being carried to school. A recent independent safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessment indicates an unusually low threat level from violent crime. The district rarely has a fight, bomb threat or even a parent cursing out a school employee. While other areas of improvement were identified, the types of weapons violence that metal detectors are most effective in addressing such as those that do not involve a targeted act of violence (commonly also referred to as an active shooter) do not appear to be a high risk.

While I have extensive first-hand experience implementing and evaluating a number of school district metal detection programs and have seen how effective they can be, most school districts are not prepared to properly fund entry point metal detection programs which often cost between $250,000 and $500,000 per school site per year to maintain an effective program that is unlikely to be defeated by a motivated student of average intelligence. I have never conducted an evaluation of an entry point metal detection program in a K-12 school district where I could not get a gun into a school (outside my own district).  Though we help our clients identify and correct these gaps, they do pose some significant challenges.

Random, surprise metal detection – first developed and implemented in the early 1990’s in the Bibb County Public School System in Macon, Georgia – is a more practical option for many non-public schools and public school districts that do have higher risk levels. This was one of the primary approaches that helped Bibb County Public Schools reduce student weapons violations by 90% over the course of ten years.

Problems with weapons in schools are of concern to schools in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, Australia and even countries like China which typically execute anyone caught with a firearm or even ammunition. At the same time, the problem of weapons in schools is a fairly complex issue with no “silver bullet”. Strategies should be locally tailored and related to the risks, realities and resources in each community. Though many people who have never actually screened students with metal detectors and security X-ray equipment think that entry point metal detection is simply a matter of buying and installing equipment, a trip through airport security can help put things into context.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.