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Broward Schools Buys Metal Detectors for Campus Safety

The latest of several security upgrades since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, the South Florida school district will randomly screen bookbags and purses with metal-detection wands starting this spring.

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Entrants into Western High School are checked before the Wildcats’ game against Coconut Creek on Oct. 1. The use of metal detectors will likely be expanded to the school day.
Michael Laughlin
(TNS) — Broward schools will be getting a new tool to help fight a rise in guns and other weapons on campus — metal detectors.

But don’t expect to see airport-style lines of students waiting to be screened. The plan, expected to start some time in spring 2022, will entail using metal-detection wands to screen bookbags and purses of various classrooms on a random basis.

Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright plans to discuss the effort with the School Board at a workshop tentatively set for noon Wednesday.

Metal detectors are the latest in a string of security upgrades the district made since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland in February 2018.

Since then, the district has created a new safety and security department, ensured every school had a single point of entry to limit public access, increased the number of security cameras, added hundreds of new security personnel and mental health counselors and revised safety policies and improved training.

The use of metal detectors has been one of the most frequent requests by parents, some in Parkland even offering to buy them. The school district had planned a pilot project for walk-through metal detectors at Stoneman Douglas for the fall of 2018, but abruptly scrapped the plan at the request of a security consultant at the time.

But a lot of has changed since 2018, school officials say. After campuses were largely empty during pandemic, the full reopening this year brought an increase in guns, knives and other weapons found on campus, as well as a number of threats that had forced students to evacuate or hide in their classrooms while police conducted searches.

“We have a new security team, a new superintendent and way more weapons on campuses than we did in 2018,” said School Board member Debbi Hixon, whose husband, Chris, was a security monitor killed at Stoneman Douglas. “We’re just having an epidemic with students having weapons in their bags.”

Broward reported 78 incidents of weapons found on campus from mid-August to late November. That three-month total is nearly twice as many as reported all last year, although on-campus enrollment was dramatically lower.

But the district also is likely to greatly exceed the number of reported weapon incidents of a more normal year, which has averaged about 120 in recent years.

The last day before winter break, Dec. 17, was especially tough.

As students were trying to complete exams, Miramar High reported a gun was found in an 11th-grader’s bag. Several other schools, including South Plantation High and Coral Glades High, were on lockdown due to threats of violence.

“Metal detectors are needed. The number of weapons on campus — guns and knives — is alarming,” said Lisa Yurkin, who teaches special-needs students at Coral Glades High. “Prevention is the key. All students and staff should feel safe in their learning environment.”

Lisa Meyers Schettino, a parent of two students at Stoneman Douglas, also likes the idea.

“I am so happy to hear this news about the wands,” she told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in a message. “I have been a huge advocate for metal detectors, so this is a fantastic start!”

The effort has actually already started. In early October, security officers began using hand-held metal detectors to screen spectators at high school varsity football games. Backpacks and most other bags weren’t permitted into stadiums.

“I think it worked well. I went to several football games, and it was a fast process,” said School Board member Lori Alhadeff, who became a school safety advocate after her daughter Alyssa was killed at Stoneman Douglas. “Families feel safer knowing people are going to be checked to make sure no one brought a weapon.”

She said they’ll also feel safer knowing metal detectors will be used during the school day, even though the approach will be different.

School officials determined screening every student, employee and visitor at school could be a logistical nightmare, especially at large schools with thousands of students all arriving at the same time. This effort also will focus on bags, rather than people.

Each school will get at least one handheld metal detector and larger schools will get multiple ones. Random classrooms will have announced screenings, officials said.

Students may be asked to remove any metal from their bag that could set off a detector, such as keys, change or electronic devices, said Leo Nesmith, chief of safety, security and emergency preparedness.

Each bag in the class may be scanned and if the wand beeps, a security officer would ask the student if there’s anything that still needs to be removed, such as keys or a phone, Nesmith said. If security staff have reason to suspect a student may be hiding something, they would be allowed to search the bag, he said.

Nesmith said the plan is to start during the spring semester, but school staff must first undergo training. In addition to school-based security staff, the district may train school administrators, Nesmith said.

The idea of metal detectors has been controversial in the past. Many questioned whether they would create a prison-like environment and that minority students would be targeted for bag searches and pat-downs.

Rosalind Osgood, the only Black member on the School Board, strongly opposed the idea in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy after speaking to some Black students at the school.

“They wanted to remember their school as a welcoming place. They wanted to rebuild their community,” she wrote in October 2019 in a letter to another school board considering X-ray screenings. “They did not want to be patted down and made to feel like they were in prison.”

But with the recent rise in weapons found on campus, Osgood said this week she’s changed her mind and supports the plan.

“I’ve been blown away by the number of guns and knives we’re seeing regularly on our campuses,” said Osgood, who is stepping down in March to run for a state Senate seat. “I think we do need to put in another level of safety.”

But she said she wants to ensure the plan is implemented consistently and “with fidelity” so it doesn’t single out any particular group.

The random metal detection plan is better than requiring everyone to go through metal detectors at the start of school, said Michael Dorn, a former school district security consultant who is director of Safe Havens International, a Georgia-based non-profit focusing on school security.

Dorn, who the district hired after the Stoneman Douglas tragedy, showed School Board members a video a few years ago of how easily weapons can evade metal detectors. He also said school districts don’t have the manpower needed to use metal detectors on every student every day.

The school district could also face potential liability if a student is patted down. As a result, then-Superintendent Robert Runcie halted a plan to pilot metal detectors at Stoneman Douglas in August 2018.

“I found the district was remarkable in showing restraint and not having a knee-jerk reaction when they’ve been under more pressure than any district I’ve worked with,” Dorn told the Sun Sentinel this week.

Dorn, who no longer has a contract with the district, said he supports the district’s plan to conduct random metal detection.

“Properly and legally conducted random surprise detection, in my experience, I would say is at least as effective and more often more effective than entry point screening,” Dorn said. “It makes it harder to bypass if you don’t know when and where the detection will be.”

But Raymond Adderly, student government president at Fort Lauderlale High, is skeptical, saying he doesn’t think it will work well and will just make students uneasy.

“Students are smart enough to know when this is going to happen,”said Adderly, who is the student liaison to the School Board. “A student gets to school late and someone texts them that there’s a random search today.”

He sad the focus needs to be on mental health, not tighter security.

John Moreno-Escobar, who has a son at Sawgass Elementary in Sunrise, also thinks the district is taking the wrong approach.

“We should be working on finding alternative solutions that focus on the individual by providing extra support via counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals,” Escobar said. “We should be asking why our students are bringing guns to our schools? What’s the root cause? That would be a good start!”

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