When School Metal Detection Makes Sense

There are many common misperceptions about the use of metal detectors to keep weapons out of schools.  On one hand, many people think that simply purchasing and installing metal detectors will keep weapons out.  People who are not experienced with effective metal detection often underestimate how many people it takes to properly screen large numbers of people in a reasonable time frame.  Effective metal detection also requires very tight access control to keep violators from simply bypassing the metal detection checkpoint. 

On the other hand, there are many people and organizations that have been critical regarding the use of metal detectors as ineffective, often basing their opinions on schools where metal detection is ineffective because it is either not implemented properly or because it is implemented as a stand-alone measure without a range of appropriate supportive prevention strategies. 

When utilized properly as part of a comprehensive approach to reduce the presence of weapons in schools, metal detection clearly reduces student weapons violations and assaults with weapons on school property.  I make these comments based on extensive first-hand experience not only helping clients implement and improve school metal detection programs, but in helping to develop a program for my own school district in the early 1990’s.  Our school district police officers confiscated over 400 weapons including 18 guns from our 25,000 students in one year before the nation’s first random surprise metal detection program was implemented.   We also experienced a number of edged weapons attacks by students that school year.  In the ten years after the program and a wide array of other prevention strategies were implemented, the district saw a 90% drop in student weapons violations and only experienced one edged weapons attack by a student. 

Considering that past experience indicated there would have likely been between 20 and 30 edged weapons attacks during this time period if new strategies had not been implemented, this is a dramatic and tangible reduction in serious violent incidents.  There was one instance where school district police officer Levi Rozier averted a planned double suicide of two high school students as a direct result of our random surprise metal detection providing one clear example that an effective school metal detection can prevent the deaths of students.

It should also be noted that when the metal detection program was suspended for most of the 2011-2012 school year, the number of weapons seized from students more than doubled and a 650% increase in the number of guns confiscated from students was documented.  The program was recently re-established after a student was caught with a gun, another student was shot at while he was at a school bus stop and yet another student was slashed with a box cutter during the first week of the school year.   While there are other prevention approaches that are being implemented to support the metal detection strategy, it is very clear that metal detection is an appropriate strategy for this high-risk community.

It is extremely important to understand that not every school needs metal detectors and that some schools may require entry point metal detection (a similar approach to that used at airports and courthouses) while the threat level in other schools may make random surprise metal detection more appropriate.  In many schools, metal detection is not only not appropriate for the risk level but would also be unwise because the funding and energy expended would be better spent on other prevention measures. 

As with security cameras and many other school safety technologies, the implementation of metal detection should be based on a formal evaluation and assessment process and requires a reasonable understanding of what the technology can and cannot be expected to accomplish in the school setting.  Having evaluated school metal detection programs for multiple civil actions as an expert witness, as an evaluator for the metal detection program for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and having evaluated numerous school system metal detection programs during school security audits, it is apparent that metal detection for schools should be based on an assessment process, policy development and implementation and proper training to staff on the processes and equipment utilized is helpful.  Most importantly, I have seen school system metal detection programs work miracles in reducing the dangers of weapons in schools.    


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.