Editorial: Locked-down schools with metal detectors may harm students more than help them

Demonstrators in Laurel County, Ky., on Feb. 21 protest for safer schools.
Demonstrators in Laurel County, Ky., on Feb. 21 protest for safer schools.
(Claire Crouch / AP)

After recent school shootings, especially the appalling attack at a Florida high school that killed and injured so many students and staff, it’s only natural and right for local authorities throughout the nation to consider how they might best protect the children and teenagers in their charge.

Many would certainly love to outlaw the sale of assault-type weapons and get the existing ones out of circulation, as difficult as that may be. But that’s largely a matter for federal lawmakers, who are unlikely to take such a logical step at the moment. California has among the strongest restrictions on assault weapons, but its ban doesn’t extend to all such firearms. And let’s face it, if surrounding states don’t do the same, it is too easy for weapons that have no legitimate use in civilian life to find their way across state lines.

What, then, can be done? Do these terrifying events call for metal detectors at the entrances to every school, or for all campuses to be securely fenced so that only students and teachers can enter?


Officials should look at whether providing safe passage to and from school might do more to protect students than beefing up metal detection at the entryways

Fortunately, Los Angeles city and educational leaders aren’t jumping up to demand immediate, draconian measures, though they’re also wisely acknowledging that new safety protocols may be needed. No one can pretend any longer that such tragedies only happen somewhere else.

L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer is assembling a blue-ribbon panel to examine the matter, and on Tuesday the Los Angeles Unified school board will consider several steps of its own. The board’s resolution includes some of the usual political grandstanding, with demands for gun control that are understandable but not within the school district’s purview. More helpfully, it calls for the superintendent to make recommendations within about a month for improving safety, as well as setting up an ongoing school-safety committee with parents and community members as well as district officials.

As these leaders and groups search for solutions, we hope that they will look broadly at the issue of safety for L.A. children and teens, rather than solely at school shootings. The attacks at other cities’ schools have been horrific, and the thought that students might not be safe on campus is unbearable. But it also is worth keeping those tragic events in perspective: In the past year, fewer than 30 students have been killed at public schools (not counting colleges, which have their own security issues). More than 100 of the nation’s children died from the flu during the past few months; thousands of teenagers are killed each year in traffic accidents.

Each kind of tragedy has its own origins, and each requires different responses. But it’s worth keeping in mind that school shootings, though they call for examination and possible action, are not the biggest danger confronted by students.

It’s also important to consider that many well-intentioned safeguards come with down sides. Many students already complain about the random use of metal-detecting wands to check a small percentage of students each day for weapons. They find it demeaning and say it interrupts class time, though others like the extra sense of safety.


Using metal detection on every student would be many times more disruptive. It also would make schools feel more like detention centers and less like places of learning and mutual respect. L.A. Unified and Feuer’s panel should look at whether providing safe passage to and from school might do more to protect students than beefing up metal detection at the entryways. Similarly, locking all classroom doors once lessons have started might be a cheap and effective way to keep students safer without making them feel distrusted.

The school district has worked hard over the last decade to make its schools more a part of their surrounding communities, with shared parks, clinics and recreational facilities. These help to make neighborhoods safer as people engage in community activities together; they also create stronger support for schools. Reversing this kind of progress in the name of improved school security might do all kinds of damage while providing little in the way of added safety.

Modern threats challenge our ability to respond. But we shouldn’t allow these incidents to make us frantic or frighten us into losing cherished traditions of learning and community.

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