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HISD considers metal detectors

It’s (maybe) come to this.

Houston ISD officials are exploring the idea of installing metal detectors at the district’s middle and high schools in response to last week’s fatal on-campus shooting of a student, a step few districts in the region have taken following nationwide incidents of mass gun violence at schools.

In a blog post, Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan wrote that she will be meeting with students and community leaders to determine whether the district should increase security measures following the Jan. 14 shooting of Cesar Cortes, 19, at Bellaire High School. Authorities have said they believe a 16-year-old classmate accidentally shot Cortes while showing off a semiautomatic pistol.

“These meetings, along with reconvening safety and security council committees on every campus, will be a catalyst for increased vigilance and preventative measures in our schools,” Lathan wrote Tuesday. “Another measure the district is exploring includes assessing middle schools and high schools for metal detectors as a screening measure for entry onto campuses.”

HISD does not regularly employ metal detectors or require clear backpacks at its campuses. Aldine and Spring ISDs are the only two large Houston-area districts that use metal detectors each school day. Cy-Fair ISD, the region’s second-largest district, issued a clear backpack mandate for students following the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead.

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The addition of metal detectors would represent one of HISD’s costliest and most significant security upgrades in recent years. While prices for metal detectors vary, outfitting all 106 campuses that serve grades 6 and higher could be costly, particularly if the district installed multiple machines at larger schools. Chicago Public Schools officials last year approved the purchase of an undisclosed number of metal detectors for nearly $4,000 per unit, with installation and warranty included.

HISD officials have not said who would operate and maintain metal detectors, which could carry additional costs.

Any districtwide purchases of metal detectors likely would require approval of the HISD school board. Trustee Patricia Allen, a former elementary school principal, said she supports the installation of metal detectors in middle and high schools, arguing the increase in security outweighs the logistical hurdles of screening students daily.

“You already see them so much, even at the football stadiums where they have lots of people going through those,” Allen said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

However, Trustee Dani Hernandez said she opposes metal detectors at schools, largely because of the message they send to students. Hernandez added that she heard backlash to metal detectors from community members following the November 2018 death of 18-year-old Delindsey Mack, who was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting within feet of Lamar High School grounds.

“We would need to figure out more about the cost, but also how that plays into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hernandez, a former elementary school teacher.

Here’s the blog post in question. A little back of the envelope math based on the Chicago schools’ experience suggests this would cost at least $4 million for the equipment, with likely additional costs for the personnel to operate the machines. As the story notes later, HISD will be getting an additional $2 million from the state for “safety-related upgrades”, which is both insufficient and doesn’t address ongoing costs.

Now, the additional cost this would impose on HISD may still be worth it. I’ve got two kids in HISD, and one of my older daughter’s best friends attends Bellaire, so I very much have skin in the game here, and the safety of HISD’s students is something I care a lot about. The first question is, would this be a good way to improve school security? As the story notes, the studies we have so far have not yet shown evidence that metal detectors do improve safety; there wasn’t enough data to draw a conclusion. We’ve all seen news stories of metal detectors at airports failing to detect guns. There’s already evidence that other “security” enhancements at schools, like live shooter drills, has had an overall negative effect on students’ mental health and well-being. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical.

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