Detecting school violence

October 17, 2006

Perhaps the incidents of school violence elsewhere in the past month triggered the spate of violence in and around Baltimore schools last week. Whatever the cause, city school officials are right to examine a number of possible solutions, including metal detectors. Students cannot learn in an atmosphere of fear and unrest. But metal detectors may not be the best answer - and the larger question is how to keep kids safe both inside and outside of school.

Many students and parents were concerned at the start of the school year when more than 4,000 students were transferred as some schools were closed or reorganized as a result of underutilization. But schools opened relatively calmly this year, particularly in contrast to 2004 when a number of arson fires, fights and other incidents were reported in the first several weeks. Those incidents prompted the sensible response from school officials to restore a number of school safety officers and hall monitors who had been cut from the budget in an effort to erase the deficit.

Then, last week, an 8-year-old boy took a gun into Grove Park Elementary School, where it was fired by one of his classmates. And a 14-year-old middle school student was shot on the grounds of Frederick Douglass High School while attending a football game.

State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says that metal detectors in some of Baltimore's most dangerous schools could prevent students or strangers from bringing a firearm into a volatile environment. School safety officers have been using hand-held wands on a random basis at some troubled schools, but security experts suggest that walk-through metal detectors, which can cost up to $4,500 each, may not deter someone who is absolutely determined to bring a gun into a school building.

The Baltimore school system's recent emphasis on bringing more adults into schools - including social workers who can help deal with students' emotional problems that might lead to violence - is a better approach. Among the violent incidents last week, students at Holabird Elementary School were forced to stay inside for a number of hours because of a shooting in the neighborhood. If students can connect with more caring adults in schools, then perhaps the idea of havens will radiate beyond the school walls to neighborhoods as well.

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