Balto. Co. schools get hand-held metal detectors

Since a shooting in the Perry Hall High cafeteria on the first day of the school year, parent Di Ciccotelli says she believes school leaders have taken steps to show they care about protecting kids.

Still, as Ciccotelli dropped her freshman son off at the school Thursday morning, she said she doubted whether the new hand-held metal detectors given to all school police officers this week would make students there any safer.

"I really think that if someone wants to do harm to someone or the school itself, they're going to find a way," she said.

After several incidents involving weapons in Baltimore County schools this fall, Police Chief James Johnson signed an order Wednesday authorizing the use of the "wands," beginning Thursday. Police did not use any of the wands Thursday, police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

The county's 63 school resource officers, who are assigned to all high schools and most middle schools, were trained how to use the devices, which cost $7,000.

Many students at Perry Hall had not heard about the metal detectors, which authorities say will be used only in cases of reasonable suspicion and not for random checks. Senior Casey Smith said she did not believe they would make the school safer.

"It could always be the least-suspicious person who really is the problem," she said.

The wands have raised concern among juvenile justice advocates, who warn that their use should not contribute to disparities in discipline. And school safety experts say the devices have limitations and must be used as part of a comprehensive plan.

"In this case, it's certainly an extra tool for the school police officers, and that's not a problem as long as a reasonable expectation is set with the parents and the community," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based in Cleveland. "They need to be very clear in saying, 'This is an extra tool.' It's not a panacea."

Two weeks after the Perry Hall shooting, a student brought a loaded gun to Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex, allegedly threatening his teacher and classmates. Last week, two 12-year-old boys at Deer Park Middle School in Randallstown were charged with gun violations after allegedly arranging to trade a .380-caliber handgun for an Xbox 360. Police found bullets in one of the boys' pockets in the locker room. And on Tuesday, authorities said, an Owings Mills High student brought a BB gun to school to show it off.

The wands are only one part of the county's response to the incidents, Johnson said. Since Sept. 12, police have conducted more than 700 school checks, in which they inspect the hallways and meet with students and staff. Last week, Johnson and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced a free gun-lock distribution program.

In the last few cases, students' coming forward with information was critical, he said.

"I believe that the vast majority of students in our school buildings are there for an education and they do not present a risk," Johnson said. "Our efforts are designed to try to focus in on that very, very small number of individuals that may have that intent to harm or bring a weapon to school."

Johnson said the hand-held detection devices "are commonplace in our everyday lives," used at airports, sporting events and government buildings.

"Arguably, this scanner wand is less intrusive than a hand search," Johnson said

Such an approach is less upsetting than a hands-on approach, said school safety expert Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center based in Georgia.

"Part of what may be driving this is, they're trying to find balance between protecting kids and not upsetting people with what they see as invasive," such as pat-downs, which are more effective, Dorn said. "Most people are more upset if you put your hands on a child than if you use a metal detector."

Officers will use the wands only when they have "reasonable, explainable suspicion," police said this week. That could be seeing a lump under someone's clothing, getting a tip that a student has a weapon or noticing someone acting unusually, police said.

"Our police are experts at this human behavior," Johnson said.

Reasonable suspicion can be interpreted broadly, said Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide organization.

Baltimore County has one of the highest suspension rates in the state. Like other counties in Maryland, it suspends and expels students of color and those with disabilities at a disproportionate rate, she said.

"We wouldn't want the use of wands to further disparities," Conyers Johnese said, adding that metal detectors should be part of a broader effort to train school resource officers and school staff to build trusting relationships with students.

"It is important that the school system uphold the limit on use of the hand-held devices only upon reasonable suspicion," Bebe Verdery, education reform director at the ACLU of Maryland, said in an email. "But we are concerned ... that having faith in, and putting money toward, metal detectors may lead schools to neglect focus on what we know works."

That includes "paying close attention to the students in the building so that every child has at least one adult who knows them and supports them, addressing bullying, and providing services to students having difficulty — whether academic, emotional, or with relationships," Verdery said.

At Perry Hall on Thursday, parent Michele Butler, whose son is 14, said she supports "anything to make the kids feel safe."

"More and more things are happening because a lot of kids these days are having trouble coping emotionally," she said. "It's really hard for the school officials and counselors to help every kid that's having trouble."

In Baltimore City public schools, administrators and police work together to do safety checks, spokeswoman Edie House Foster said. Several schools use hand-held and walk-through metal detectors daily, she said, and principals have the authority to conduct random checks.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun