We know that tens of thousands of students pass through metal detectors every day in New York City. We know that the vast majority of them are students of color. And we know that for many of these students, metal detectors will lead to confrontational, invasive, and harmful interactions with school police. Waiting in line to be scanned and potentially frisked or searched often makes students late for class, cumulatively costing hours or even days of learning time over the course of the year.
But there’s a lot we don’t know about how the City and the NYPD use metal detectors. We don’t know if the City has ever measured the impact metal detectors have on the learning environment — either in learning time lost, spikes in absenteeism, or damaged relationships. We don’t know where they use them, when they use them, or what police confiscate from students. We don’t know any of this about the technology being used on our kids because the NYPD refuses to tell the public.
For years, the NYCLU has tried to get answers. Since 2016, the NYPD has been required to collect information on the use of metal detectors in schools and report that information to the City Council and the public. In 2019, the NYCLU submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the council, asking for these reports. But later that year, the Council responded saying it did not have the data we requested.
In 2020, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit against the NYPD to force the disclosure of information about the department’s presence in schools and the impact of metal detectors on students. But this year a conservative court ruled that this information could remain hidden from the public.
Without official reports, we have to rely on an analysis of public data that very likely undercounts the number of students who get scanned every day.
Using the Student Safety Act quarterly reports from 2016 to 2022, which capture information on NYPD activity in City schools, we compiled:
- A list of each school.
- The number of times there was significant contact between an office and a public school student
- Whether at the time of the incidents, there were metal detectors or some form of electronic scanning at the school.
Our analysis shows that nearly 200,000 students have attended schools with scanning since 2016 — putting them at risk for harassment, invasive searches, and fraught interactions with the police. This surely captures only a fraction of the impact of metal detectors in City schools.
According to our analysis, in schools that had scanning, students of color made up 88 percent of total enrollment:
- 28 percent Black
- 41 percent Latinx
- 16 percent Asian
- 12 percent white
Our analysis showed that schools with scanning have more Black students and fewer white students than schools in our analysis that did not have evidence of scanning.
Previous analyses have found similar racial disparities. A 2015 investigation by WNYC found that Black and Latinx high school students were nearly three times more likely to attend a scanning school than white high school students
There’s also evidence that the stated reasons the NYPD implements metal detectors in some schools and not in others is mysterious, completely nonsensical, or racially-biased. For example, the Bayard Rustin Educational Campus (BREC) in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood serves mostly students of color and is home to multiple schools for over-age and under-credited students. BREC students have been repeatedly subjected to unannounced metal-detector screening.
In 2018, principals and students on the campus were informed by police that the metal detectors were necessary because of reports of crime in the neighborhood. But, the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies across the street – which has a predominantly white student body – has not had repeated metal-detector scanning.
Metal detectors can’t create safe schools.
By hiding the full extent of metal detector use, the NYPD and the union that represents school police are able to cherry-pick details to feed the public and the tabloid press. That information is usually designed to fit a narrative that City schools are dangerous, full of weapons, and that only metal detectors and police officers can keep students safe. These reports often include the number of “weapons” seized by school police, but for years students have told us those figures include everyday metal items like deodorant cans, key rings, and forks. The NYPD refuses to tell us exactly what’s being confiscated, allowing them to seize students’ belongings with no oversight.
With the real impact of metal detectors held under lock-and-key and the public only exposed to the narratives the NYPD wants to push, the City feels little pressure to curb the use of metal detectors. Officials have even experimented with other, even less-proven technology.
In March, Mayor Eric Adams promoted a new scanning technology made by Evolv Technologies which “passively” scans students as they enter their school. But this technology has regularly misidentified Chromebook computers as guns, putting students in danger of experiencing totally unnecessary confrontations with police that could easily escalate.
Everyone wants schools that are safe, and it’s understandable to reach for something like metal detectors as an easy way to achieve this goal. But metal detectors can’t create safe schools. To get to the core of this issue, students have to trust the teachers and staff at their school so they feel comfortable telling them when something is wrong. Schools also need more counselors, social workers, and medical staff who can help students deal with problems before they get serious. The City should invest more in clean, healthy school buildings, after-school supports, and culturally relevant curriculum.
We should be curtailing our use of metal detectors and investing in these proven solutions. That’s the only way to get truly safe schools in New York City and across the state.
If your school has been subject to scanning in the past six years and is not identified in our analsyis, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.