Why Metal Detectors are Not the Best Way to Prevent Harm in School

In New York City public schools, more than 100,000 young people are subjected to TSA-style metal detector screening every day of their high school careers. 

Several thousand more are subject to “random” and “unannounced” screening, which is unpredictable and chaotic by design. Although the city has refused to disclose which schools and students are subject to these screenings, research by the NYCLU indicates that at least 90 percent of those students most affected are black or Latinx.

This fall, the NYPD decided to conduct “unannounced” metal detector screening at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex (BREC). BREC is a campus in Chelsea that is home to five high schools and one middle school. More than 90 percent of the students in the building are black or Latinx. 

Together, the schools have a progressive approach to education, accepting students who are struggling to get by in other schools, including students who have been incarcerated, and offering curricula that provide multiple pathways to graduation and careers. 

The schools have embraced restorative practices, such as peer-mediated small groups, to create a strong and healthy school climate. Serious discipline issues are rare, with more than 80 percent of students at BREC reporting they feel safe in school on a citywide survey. But that didn’t stop officers from descending on the school in November 2017 for multiple days, spanning three weeks, as part of a training exercise on metal detector screenings. 

The NYPD’s approach to unannounced metal detector screening is not compatible with a restorative approach to school climate and discipline. This was made clear when BREC students, relying on their strong training and practice in restorative approaches, sought assistance from the NYCLU to bring their concerns about metal detectors to the NYPD. We are working to amplify their voices to urge the city to revise its approach. 

In the service of protecting students, metal detectors cause serious harm to young people and their school communities. Teachers and administrators at BREC lost hours of instructional time thanks to the long waits and lines created by the metal detector scanning process, and then had to spend valuable class time cleaning up the emotional and psychological mess that was left behind. 

Though the Department of Education encourages schools to use restorative practices and other techniques to ensure kids are safe, secure and respected in their schools, the city has invested nothing close to the funding that goes to the metal detector program. 

Imagine if a force of dozens of trained guidance counselors were deployed around the city in this way – They could provide students with a needed mental health boost, and achieve the same stated goal of preventing harm. This way, however, there would be no side-effects.

No kids would be suspended or have their property taken away. No one would have their personal bodily autonomy invaded in the name of a search. And we wouldn’t be trusting machines to keep our children safe. 

That’s the kind of mass deployment of resources that could lead to lasting change and safer schools.

In recognition of this week's National Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Our Schools and to acknowledge NYC DOE Respect for All Week, February, 12-15, the NYCLU will host a series of events, share stories from students and post other content that will highlight what it takes to create schools that are safe, supportive and inclusive for all students.

Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter channels for more.

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