School, Not Jail

Though metal detectors can be effective at deterring violence in the short term, we need to focus more on solving the long-term root causes of gun violence in schools, which are often untreated mental illness and gang violence

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It seems like we hear news about tragic school shootings in our country every single day. These tragic events force students across the nation to ask, “Are we next?” Gun control laws are notoriously lax and inconsistent across the nation. Compromise seems nearly impossible: liberals vouch for stronger laws, claiming that the source of the recent uptick in mass shootings is weak protections on the ability of the mentally ill to obtain firearms. Conservatives say that such restrictions are unconstitutional and look for more short-term solutions. To prevent school shootings, many have begun stationing metal detectors and random bag checks at entrances. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in October that he will station more metal detectors and police officers on campuses across New York City.

Studies of gun violence in schools show a trend of mental illness, often undiagnosed. Seventy-eight percent of school shooters have a history of suicidal thoughts before their attack. Sixty-one percent of shooters have a history of suicide attempts and extreme depression. Seventy-one percent of the attackers are victims of bullying. However, these cases often go unnoticed until after the attack. Shooters use gun violence as a statement of revenge, hopelessness, and desperation.

Metal detectors can be effective at deterring violence in the short term, but we need to focus on solving the long-term root causes of gun violence in schools, which are often untreated mental illness and gang violence. Metal detectors can create a prison-like environment within the school, can be ineffective due to ill-trained operators and unpreparedness, and are seen as discriminatory toward children who experience gang violence, who are often low-income students of color.

A study by SAGE found that the negative association between metal detectors and urban students’ sense of safety is 13 percent less than for students attending suburban or rural schools. Furthermore, the presence of metal detectors and random bag checks in school has been shown to diminish academic performance because many students struggle to feel comfortable in such a heavily patrolled setting.

Though metal detectors and random bag checks can help deter kids from bringing in guns, overall, they are inefficient against mass shootings and gang violence. Schools in NYC report that 57 percent of weapons confiscated in a single year were found without a detector, and studies show that metal detectors generally fail to identify a large percentage of weapons that pass through them. This inefficiency is because metal detectors are not implemented to confiscate weapons on a large scale; they are mainly there for symbolic purposes, to give parents and kids the illusion of safety as opposed to real help. This symbolism doesn’t treat the real causes of gun violence. Most students who bring weapons to school have severe depression, have suicidal thoughts, or are pressured to by gang violence. When students are not worried about the repercussions of getting caught, metal detectors will not be potent.

Furthermore, police officers managing metal detectors are often not taught to take care of them properly. Training to manage metal detectors is very limited; they need time to check each student who may have accidentally set an alarm off; students need to take time out of morning classes; and stationary detectors are hard to use and repair. Repair, cost, training, and morning mayhem weaken the “symbolic” aspect of metal detectors and make it easier for violent students to take advantage of unpreparedness.

In the same study by SAGE, African American and Latino students were overrepresented as students at schools with metal detectors. Proponents for metal detectors say that they reduce gang violence in schools, especially in low-income communities of color. However, it is more effective to target the root causes and ask, “Why are children likely to bring weapons to school in the first place?” Factors like poverty, racism, poor housing, and addiction are risk factors for children to partake in gang violence, factors that are also prevalent in communities that have been historically discriminated against, such as communities of color. In cases like these, a better solution is to expand guidance services and resources for people of color living in hostile environments. Not only would this action improve the general mental health of those exposed to gang violence, it would also lower violence in schools and take away the prison-esque feel of the school.

The best solution is to recognize signs of mental distress in students through regular check-ins by guidance counselors and teachers, because mental illness and environmental violence are often factors that lead to in-school violence. If a student has signs of mental illness and/or potential for inflicting violence, their parents and police should be notified and steps taken to provide therapy and support. A solution like this framework can cover both the physical and emotional health aspects of school safety, whereas metal detectors and random bag checks sacrifice one for the other.

A friend told me that it is better for a school to be a prison than a violence-torn hell. But school does not have to be either of those when we show sympathy for the students who experience violence first hand. No one can have a healthy mind without physical safety, and vice versa: by elevating mental health to the same standards as physical health, we can reach a point when metal detectors in school never have to be considered.