Violent week renews metal detector debate

October 14, 2006|By Sara Neufeld and Sumathi Reddy | Sara Neufeld and Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporters

A violence-filled week for Baltimore public school students - including a shooting on the grounds of Frederick Douglass High School yesterday - has ignited a community debate over whether installing metal detectors would make children any safer.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she would support having metal detectors in the city's most dangerous schools, especially if parents want them. But many others said the fix would be short-sighted, expensive and ineffective.

City school system officials said that, while they are willing to discuss the issue, they are not going to rush out to buy the devices immediately. They were quick to point out that a metal detector would not have prevented yesterday's shooting, which happened outside.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, it's clear this week's events have left teachers, parents and students frightened. And coming on the heels of highly publicized school shootings in Colorado and Pennsylvania, the local developments were particularly unsettling.

"Because things have been back to back - it's been so frequent -people are afraid for safety," said Patricia Ferguson, chairman of the Baltimore Teachers Union's safety committee and a teacher at Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy. She said her panel supports putting metal detectors in schools.

The week's trouble began late Monday afternoon, when about 100 students from Digital Harbor High School gathered several blocks from the school to watch a fight between two 15-year-old girls, breaking a car windshield.

On Wednesday, a 14-year-old girl at Pimlico Middle School was hospitalized after, police say, a 13-year-old classmate stabbed her in the arm with a 10-inch kitchen knife. Also Wednesday, about 200 pupils at Holabird Elementary were locked inside their school for more than four hours after a shooting in the neighborhood.

On Thursday, an 8-year-old boy brought a revolver into his third-grade class at Grove Park Elementary School. Another boy went over to see the gun in his desk and accidentally pulled the trigger.

The boy who brought the gun to school - a small-framed, wide-eyed child with a shaved head - appeared in Juvenile Court yesterday for a hearing. Charged as a minor in possession of a handgun and two other related counts, he wore a gray fleece, blue jeans and sneakers, and held the hand of a public defender as he entered the hearing room.

The boy sat silently at a table, coloring and reading children's books, while his lawyer and a prosecutor discussed with a juvenile master the conditions of his home detention.

Master Claudette McDonald Brown allowed the boy to return home with his grandmother, who sat in court yesterday, after being assured that the weapon was out of the home. He is to stay at home except when he goes to school or a medical appointment, and he is to have another hearing next month.

Authorities continue to investigate how he got the gun.

Yesterday, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the back outside Douglass during a football game. He was in fair condition last night.

Around the country, urban school systems commonly use metal detectors, particularly in middle and high schools. But they are not always effective.

In 2004, a student in a Washington, D.C., high school with a metal detector was fatally shot by a classmate inside the building. Last year in Red Lake, Minn., a shooting occurred in a school with a metal scanner, perimeter fencing and guards at the front door.

"The thing is, rule-followers will follow the rules. Rule-breakers will break the rules," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center. "Sometimes the metal scanning is more of a comfort for the community, the parents and maybe the other students."

In Baltimore, the idea of installing metal detectors in schools has been floated numerous times over the years after incidents of violence. One argument against such a move is cost.

Manufacturers say walk-through metal detectors can cost $2,000 to $4,500 each. But the bigger expense would be the salaries of guards to supervise them.

"It's an incredibly inefficient use of resources," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

She said it would be more effective to devote money to hiring more school police officers, hall monitors and social workers, and to lower class sizes. Many researchers say that the best way to prevent school violence is for children to have trusting relationships with adults, but teachers often complain that they can't give kids enough personal attention when their classes are too big.

Edie House, a city school system spokeswoman, said the system recently hired an extra 40 social workers in an attempt to better address children's emotional needs, and thus prevent them from acting out.

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