Do Metal Detectors Make Sense for Your School District?

The tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago marked a significant turning point for school safety. It prompted a surge in building modifications across the nation as school officials worked hard to revamp their safety programs and control access to their facilities.

The Sandy Hook incident sparked a tremendous increase in the use of buzzer systems, where visitors can only gain access after a staff member buzzes them into the building, explained Dr. Amy Klinger, director of the Educator’s School Safety Network.

secure school door and entryway

Since that time, school districts have boosted security in other ways too.

For the 2013-2014 school year, National Center for Education statistics show 75 percent of public schools surveyed used security cameras to monitor their schools, 68 percent required faculty and staff to wear picture IDs, and 24 percent used drug-sniffing dogs to conduct random searches. But only 4 percent used random metal detector checks.

Why Don’t More Schools Use Metal Detectors?

We’ve been slogging through metal detectors at airport security checkpoints for years and subjecting ourselves to similar screenings and searches at concerts and sporting events.

But the use of metal detectors in schools has been limited mostly to large, urban districts with established records of weapons-related violence. New York City’s Education Department, for example, installed its first metal detectors in 1988 and currently runs screenings in more than 90 buildings.

For the vast majority of public schools, however, metal detectors may not be the right fit. You have to weigh your risk profile against the cost and complexity of implementation. You also have to examine the ongoing debate over whether metal detectors create a safer environment or an intimidating, prison-like one.

Short-Term & Long-Term Costs of School Metal Detectors

A stationary metal detector can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000. Models in the $4,000 to $5,000 range typically offer features best suited for a school environment, according to a report from the National Institute of Justice.

But the initial equipment costs only tell part of the story. You also need to think about operational and maintenance costs:

  • Hiring security personnel to operate the metal detectors
  • Providing ongoing training for security personnel and other staff
  • Equipment maintenance and repairs
  • Replacing outdated equipment

Metal Detector Operational Issues Prompt Many Questions

Metal detection systems can certainly serve as a risk-reduction tool, but Ken Trump, school safety consultant and president of National School Safety and Security Services, believes the most effective school safety programs need to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to prevent people from entering the school and either storing or using weapons during non-screening hours.

You need to weigh the feasibility of a 24/7 system against the risks of operating it intermittently:

  • If you only screen students before the start of the school day, what happens when students arrive later in the day?
  • Will you screen all staff and faculty?
  • What about visitors?
  • Will you operate the metal detectors during after-school activities or evening events?

You have to consider other logistical issues, as well:

  • How will you secure other points of entry, including doors and first-floor windows, so you can funnel students, staff and visitors through the main entrance?
  • Can you screen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students every day and still start the school day on time?
  • Does it make sense to install permanent walk-through detectors or portable models to conduct random sweeps?

Are Metal Detectors Effective in Schools?

The debate continues over whether school metal detector programs actually work and whether they make students feel safe or anxious.

Proponents feel administrators should do everything they possibly can to make schools safer – whatever it takes. And often, worried parents push for metal detectors after a weapons-related incident in their child’s district, a high-profile attack at another school or a general feeling that their school might be unsafe.

One South Carolina lawmaker, Representative Wendall Gilliard, just proposed a bill to place walk-through metal detectors at every entrance of every public elementary, middle and high school in the state in time for the next school year.

He explained, “Are we going to wait for another Columbine or Sandy Hook? We need to act and we need to act swiftly. I always tell people, if the technology is there, then use it.”

Metal detector programs have proven effective in some large, urban districts.

Eric Weston, chief of police for Boston Public Schools credits metal detectors with keeping firearms out of the schools almost entirely and reducing the number of knives and other weapons in the school building. “[Metal detectors] changed things,” he said. “I would definitely advocate for it.”

Recent New York Police Department data showed metal detectors significantly cut down the number of box cutters, knives and guns that were smuggled into the city’s public schools.

Opponents, however, believe metal detector programs only serve to create a menacing, prison-like atmosphere that makes students anxious and does little to stop the flow of weapons into a school. Some even claim metal detector programs violate a student’s Fourth Amendment Rights regarding unreasonable search and seizure.

Instead, many experts advise that schools should invest in a comprehensive security plan that includes the latest training for staff to diffuse a situation more quickly.

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Think of Metal Detectors in Terms of a Larger Security Plan

No security measure offers a 100-percent safety guarantee. So as you look at the feasibility of a metal detector program for your schools, consider how this one tool will fit into a larger security plan and be sure to manage expectations among students, staff and the community.

The most effective school safety plans involve close collaboration with local law enforcement, foster open communication between students and faculty, and emphasize proper training for all stakeholders.

Metal detector programs can reduce the risk of weapons-related violence for certain schools, but they can’t operate in a vacuum. You need to look at a variety of elements as you formulate a comprehensive security plan:

  • Secure, locked entryways
  • Bullet-resistant doors and/or windows at main entrances
  • Security cameras in key campus locations
  • Policies for reporting suspicious activity, using ID cards to gain entrance, etc.
  • Active-shooter incident training for staff, possibly students
  • Lock-down drills for students and faculty
  • Utilization of school resource officers to manage security and build relationships
  • Communications plans for reporting training exercises, incidents and other key information to the community

If you decide to implement a metal detector program for your school, make sure you clearly communicate the capabilities and limitations of the technology to students, staff, parents and the community. Concerned parents and community members are often desperate for a quick solution, but metal detectors, like any security technology, aren’t a cure-all.

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Sources: NBC news, National Center for Education Statistics, National Institute of Justice, School, The Kansas City Star, WSAV Savannah, GA, MASS Live, New York Post,

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