Last week’s deadly shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, prompted calls for the increased installation of metal detectors at schools.
Safety experts say that’s precisely the wrong response. There’s a cheaper, more effective approach, but it’s a tough sell.
The recurrent shootings at schools – at least 30 this year resulting in death or injury, according to the gun-safety organization Everytown – has sent policymakers and administrators scrambling for ways to keep students safe.
Last year, in the wake of the massacre of 17 high school students and personnel in Parkland, Florida, Congress apportioned millions of dollars as part of the STOP School Violence Act to cover the cost of safety equipment and programs.
Yet the bloodshed continues.
According to national figures compiled by the Educator’s School Safety Network, incidents of school violence – defined as instances that require a response beyond the institution’s regular capabilities – spiked by more than 185% from the 2016-17 school year to 2018-19. Over that time, the number of threats also rose by 62%.
“We are focusing our time and our energy and attention and our money on all the wrong things,’’ said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the nonprofit.
“It’s difficult because, on one hand, we do have to have plans and procedures to respond to crisis events. Unfortunately, in this country, school safety has become synonymous with only response and only to that worst-case scenario, a catastrophic active-shooter event.’’
Klinger points out those kinds of episodes, which garner the most media attention, accounted for only 6% of school violence incidents in the most recent study, compared to 34% for false reports. However, incidents involving guns made up 24% of all cases, and in 10.5% of all instances shots were fired.
Metal detectors? Too easy to bypass, too expensive and too disruptive
One logical step to address the issue would be to keep guns off campuses, and a common method to attempt that is by installing metal detectors, which are often employed by some of the bigger school districts.
Saugus High, with a student population of close to 2,500, has a fenced-in campus and security cameras but no metal detectors. Demands for putting them in increased after the shooting.
Chris Dorn, senior analyst for the campus safety group Safe Havens International, is not convinced that’s a worthwhile investment.
Dorn said metal detectors are costly – proper use requires an armed guard – and tend to jam up entrances. They can also create a prison-like feeling among students, have been linked to diminished academic performance and, worst of all, don’t work well in school settings.
“There’s a number of ways they can be bypassed,’’ Dorn said. “Every school I work with that uses them mentions to me, ‘Oh, we see students do X, Y and Z to get around metal detectors.’ It’s very expensive to do it correctly, and it’s limited to specific environments.’’
Guy Russ, head of armed-intruder prevention at Church Mutual Insurance, puts it in starker terms: “The thing to realize is it could mean that the person manning the metal detector is the first one to get shot,’’ he said.
The best approach to keep students safe at school: Staff empowerment
All three safety specialists who spoke to USA TODAY advocate for staff training and empowerment as a better tactic to confront school violence, although they take different approaches.
Klinger’s group focuses on preventive measures like threat assessment and management, along with improving school culture. She said data supports those courses of action but acknowledges they don’t present well.
“It’s a lot easier to stand at a school board meeting and say to all the concerned parents, ‘Look what we did. We have an SRO (resource officer). We have a metal detector. We have these intense door locks,’’’ Klinger said. “That’s much more compelling than saying, ‘We have undertaken this difficult, nuanced, ephemeral process (that features training).’’’
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Dorn noted that because shootings can cause so much mayhem in a short time – the Saugus episode took 16 seconds and left three dead, including the gunman, and three wounded – the focus should be on prevention.
He said technological tools have gotten cheaper and can help if applied correctly, and he vouched for random screening for weapons as a means of deterrence.
When those fail, though, Dorn said teachers and other school personnel need to be trained with realistic drills that require them to take charge in case of an emergency, not rely on the principal or somebody else for directions.
A perfect example of that were the actions taken by Saugus choir teacher Kaitlin Holt, who was hailed as a hero for guiding students to safety.
“What schools need to be doing is what we call staff-initiated drills,’’ Dorn said. “We want that realism like, ‘Hey, you’re on the spot, make a decision.’ But we’re not lighting things on fire.’’
Some will go that far. In its effort to help schools and churches prepare for attacks, Church Mutual Insurance has partnered with the ALICE Training Institute, which takes a decidedly proactive tack to training.
ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, and the company promotes realistic simulations of emergencies and survival skills in critical situations, going beyond the standard “run, hide, fight’’ response to armed intruders.
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Some, including Dorn, consider their methods too aggressive and likely to scare youngsters, but Russ said:
“We equate the idea of needing to drill for a shooting event just like we drill for fires. Some schools do that once a month. Unfortunately, the risk has occurred so frequently that we need to start adjusting our thinking. I suppose there’s always the possibility of traumatizing somebody with bad news, but I would much rather take a bet on having them be prepared and perhaps a bit uncomfortable in a drill than to not be prepared.’’
What about good guys with guns? ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea’
Jason Silva, an expert in mass shootings and school violence who teaches at William Paterson University in New Jersey, said researchers are still trying to figure out what’s the most effective way to fend off aggression.
He said that for every argument that active-shooter drills are the best way to protect students, there’s a counterargument that the preparation informs an assailant – often a fellow student, as was the case at Saugus – of what kind of response to expect.
Silva said a study he’s currently conducting so far shows that attempts at foiling assaults by notifying authorities of troubling signs – if you see something, say something – have worked better at schools than in the workplace.
What’s virtually indisputable among researchers, he said, is that arming teachers or others is not the way to keep schools safe.
“All of the research in terms of gun violence says that the more guns there are in any situation, the more likely someone’s going to get shot,’’ Silva said. “Very rarely is an individual stopped by a good guy with a gun in the school. So, this idea of putting people with guns in schools, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’’