Legal Brief

Judging the Value of Metal Detectors
By MICHELE V. JONES/School Administrator, January 2019

APPROXIMATELY 90,000 STUDENTS a day pass through metal detectors in New York City schools, according to news reporting by public radio station WNYC. Students in some urban schools have been walking through metal detectors for decades.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 9 percent of high schools nationwide in 2016 were using metal detectors to screen students upon building entry. The goal everywhere: Keep staff and students safe by preventing weapons from entering schools.

The concept of metal detectors was introduced in the early 1970s in the airline industry. Case law in subsequent years has supported the use of hand-held and walk-through detectors in schools and other public places as suspicionless searches that promote public safety. Courts opined that the need for safety outweighs an individual’s constitutional right to be free from search and seizure.

But are metal detectors in schools really as appropriate as they are in airports?

Student Rights
We know that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates and school administrators have the right to search a student if there is a reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover a violation of policy or law. However, as an increasing number of schools use metal detectors, school leaders must recognize that while educators share airports’ safety goals, students differ from airline passengers.

Passengers consent to the suspicionless searches and have the ability to turn away from a metal detector. The only consequence is a missed flight. Students cannot consent to the suspicionless search because they are compelled to go to school and do not have the option of turning away from the metal detector without the possibility of discipline.

What do you do with a student who refuses to walk through a metal detector — perhaps for a legitimate reason like feeling unwell? Courts have opined that staff do not have the right to pull students aside and do a manual search in lieu of using a metal detector because the manual search is more intrusive. Refusing to walk through a metal detector does not provide a reasonable suspicion that evidence of a policy violation or a crime will be found.

On average, students walk through metal detectors in New York City 16.4 million times during a school year, yet in 2013-14 only one weapon for every 23,000 scans was found, about half the number of weapons actually brought to school, according to New York Police Department data as reported in the New York Post. Metal detectors are not foolproof. There are other ways to smuggle weapons into schools, and not all weapons are detectable.

In South Carolina, every public middle, junior and high school must be equipped with a hand-held metal detector. But it can be difficult to actualize the plan. Funding issues aside, even the Broward County, Fla., School District delayed installing metal detectors, in part because of the logistical challenges of getting 3,200 students through the detectors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and into class each morning without significant disruption.

Advance Notices
Before implementing a policy on the use of metal detectors, districts should articulate a legitimate reason to do so. District leaders should give advance notice to parents and students of the metal detectors and post conspicuous notices outside doorways where they intend to use metal detectors. The detectors can be effective only with specific policies and procedures and adequate staff training.

A school attorney ought to be part of the discussion about the purchase and use of metal detectors on school property.

Alternatives for safety exist. School districts are addressing the mental well-being of students, and some districts concentrate on educators building a better rapport with their students as a more effective measure for monitoring what students are up to.

Staff and student safety is of paramount importance, and metal detectors definitely can help keep weapons out of schools, but they serve as only a partial solution to a much larger societal issue.

MICHELE JONES is general counsel for the Capital Region BOCES in Albany, N.Y.