Weapon checks OK'd at schools

Above elementary level, detectors can be put in at community request

December 11, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore school system is preparing to install metal detectors in any middle and high schools where the community supports use of the devices, officials said yesterday.

System officials are surveying principals, staff and parents to see whether any communities want to require students either to pass through a metal detector or to undergo a scan with a hand-held wand. No schools will be forced to install detectors, but schools chief Andres Alonso says he supports giving principals the option if there is community support.

Many urban middle and high schools around the nation use metal detectors, including schools labeled "persistently dangerous" in New York City, where Alonso served as deputy chancellor before coming to Baltimore in July.

But in Baltimore, the school board resisted calls to install the devices as recently as last year. Now the board is standing behind Alonso's proposal.

The initiative is part of Alonso's overall strategy to give more power and resources to principals to improve their schools and then hold them accountable for the results. While Alonso and his staff say that metal detectors are unnecessary in many schools, particularly elementaries, they could be a helpful tool to deter violence and provide a sense of security in buildings with repeated incidents.

The cost of the initiative will depend on how many schools ask for metal detectors. Alonso's chief of staff, Gen. Bennie E. Williams, said he's asked administrators to report back with requests by Dec. 19, with an eye toward installing the devices by the end of January.

Williams said the system can purchase metal detectors for $1,200 to $2,800 each. Hand-held wands - now in use periodically by school police to conduct weapons searches in middle and high schools - cost about $350 each.

The larger expense will be paying a staff member to monitor a metal detector. In some cases, Williams said, existing staff could be redeployed, while in others, new staff would be necessary.

"If it requires additional resources, we're going to do what's required," Williams said.

Alonso has said that there will be budget transfers in early 2008 to give principals more money to make their schools safer. While the transfers must be approved by the school board, Alonso has said repeatedly since his hiring in July that he wants to cut administrative costs to send more money directly to children.

So far this academic year, the number of suspensions in city schools is down but arrests are up. From the start of school through the end of October, there were 216 incidents in city schools leading to arrests, compared with 172 incidents in the same period the year before, according to data provided by the system.

The decrease in suspensions comes as Alonso discourages schools from suspending students for nonviolent incidents, such as cutting class. He wants to give principals the funding to establish in-school suspension programs. But with violent behavior, he said in a recent interview, "we cannot afford to err."

Most recent violent incidents have come at a handful of schools. The schools police chief, Marshall "Toby" Goodwin, said he is particularly concerned about the Dr. Samuel L. Banks/Thurgood Marshall middle and high school complex, the Walbrook high school complex, and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High. All three have had multiple arsons in recent months.

At Dr. Samuel L. Banks High last week, a school nurse found a student with a 9 mm gun, Goodwin said. Police chased the boy as he ran off school grounds and arrested him nearby. The gun was unloaded.

During a student weapons search at the Walbrook complex in September, school police confiscated 14 knives, a box cutter, a firecracker, three cans of Mace and two bricks inside socks.

Goodwin said school police have confiscated dozens of knives so far this school year, but only a few guns. Students have said repeatedly that they carry weapons for protection when they feel unsafe, either inside a school building or on their way to and from school.

The use of metal detectors in Baltimore schools has been debated several times through the years, most recently in October 2006. In the span of two days that month, a 13-year-old girl at the now-closed Pimlico Middle School stabbed a classmate in the arm with a 10-inch kitchen knife, and an 8-year-old boy brought a loaded revolver to Grove Park Elementary. The boy showed the gun to a classmate, who accidentally discharged it into a desk. No one was injured.

At the time, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she would support installing metal detectors in the city's most dangerous schools if parents wanted them. City school board members said they were willing to discuss the concept, but they worried about costs and the negative psychological message that metal detectors would send to students. Critics also cited examples in which weapons got inside even when schools had metal detectors.

Since then, the board has given Alonso substantial freedom to run the schools as he sees fit. Williams, the chief of staff, said board members were receptive to the metal detector proposal in a recent closed session.

Last month, the school board approved a revised comprehensive safety plan that did not explicitly authorize the use of metal detectors but said the issue was under exploration. The plan contains the following language outlining the board's position:

"Technology enhancements such as security cameras, metal detectors, pass keys, access controls, and radios have their advantages. However, these are only tools to assist officials in an ongoing security plan. Plugging these devices in and `feeling' secure creates a false sense of security. Utilizing these devices effectively means strategically placing them in areas of concern and having diligent staff monitor and operate these devices to their fullest capacity."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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