The Salt Lake City School Board recently approved the use of state funds for a one-year contract with security firm PalAmerican to staff machines at East, West and Highland high schools as well as Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, the district’s alternative high school.
The costly and controversial measure is still uncommon in the majority of the country’s high schools, even as school shootings continue to impact tens of thousands of U.S. students. A number of school safety experts warn that security measures like metal detectors are not a safety guarantee and instead can be detrimental to students — especially those from communities of color.
The district plans on hosting open houses at schools before fall break so parents and students can try the machines and meet security staff. The measure is part of the district’s broader safety strategy, which includes counseling, threat assessments, additional safety personnel in schools and positive behavior inventions.
District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said the district is including its social-emotional learning team — a team of specialists working in conjunction with school counselors to help students develop social and emotional skills — in conversations about the detectors to mitigate the emotional and mental impact the technology may have on students.
“The only reason that a student will be stopped is if the machine beeps — that is independent of what the student looks like, who they are, what gender, what race or ethnicity. In terms of students being targeted more from a particular demographic over another, that won’t happen because it’s an objective beep machine that’ll be the cause for a stop of any student,” she said.
“The goal is to make sure that we’re using every tool in our arsenal to keep students safe, but can’t come at the cost of making them feel unsafe in other ways, of course. So we’re we’re taking that into account.”
Only two school board members — Ashley Anderson and Mohamed Baayd — voted against the weapon detectors staffing contract. Each cited concerns about students of color.
“I oppose it because the data shows that this type of hardening offers virtually zero protection against school-based violence,” Anderson said during a meeting approving the contract. “But what I’m even more worried about is the body of public health and police deescalation research that shows unsworn officers — like those in the contract with PalAmerica — risk the escalation of violence, specifically for people of color.”
PalAmerican declined to answer questions about how its security officers are trained and whether that training includes topics like implicit bias. However, the firm’s website claims its security training is typically two to three times longer and more extensive than competitors and that officers receive education- and minor-specific training.
“Our students are already under so much stress,” Baayd said. “Walking through a weapon detector is emotionally exhausting. I am speaking from my own experiences. I walk through TSA and I have to prepare myself two days in advance and worry if that weapon detector or that scanner goes off. … And also I’m thinking about the minority kids who come from the refugee world, from places of war and then they would have to walk in through this and if it beeps, it’s a nightmare. I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
Other board members said while they understand and appreciate Anderson’s and Baayd’s concerns, parents from a variety of backgrounds have pleaded with board members for the machines. KSL-TV also reported that parents are divided over the measure.
“I know that we need to recognize that it’s challenging for individuals, but then we also need to consider that there are other individuals and many parents that this is giving them some peace of mind,” board member Bryan Jensen said.
Odis Johnson, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe & Healthy Schools, says the center’s research has linked different forms of school surveillance — ranging from metal detectors to book bag searches — to poorer educational outcomes, such as lower math scores and lower likelihood of college enrollment as well as a higher likelihood of being suspended.
A number of studies have also found that school surveillance methods are more likely to be used at schools with a more diverse student body. Johnson, for example, said his center found African American students were four times more likely to be enrolled in such schools.
The Salt Lake City School District has opted to roll out the measure at all high schools but Innovations Early College High School. But Johnson said there is still cause for concern since the measure is being adopted in a diverse, urban school district and not across the state. In fact, Salt Lake City School District is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse districts in the state with a minority student population of 59%.
“It ends up exacerbating those disparities that are really the story nationwide, and that’s a concern,” he said. “While the technology may be implemented in every school … we’ve got to keep in mind that children don’t respond equally to similar technology because they come from communities, they come from experiences with not only the technology and teachers but the justice system, which tends to entangle kids from minoritized backgrounds, historically, at higher rates than any other population. So it’s not just equal opportunity in terms of the technology; it’s unequal opportunity in how kids respond to the same technology.”
A 2019 study found students in schools with metal detectors are more likely to perceive violence and disorder and less likely to feel safe — a point highlighted by both Johnson and Ben Fisher, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who researches how the education and criminal justice systems overlap.
Research into the overall effectiveness of metal detectors is ongoing, but Fisher said a more proven investment into school safety is developing strong student-staff relationships and a sense of belonging at school.
“But both of those things are hard work. You can’t just buy and install relationships or buy and install belonging,” he said. “When we normalize this constant surveillance of having to do things like walk through metal detectors — everybody, every day — we’re sort of implanting ideas in the young people’s heads that the problem of gun violence is going to stay and we and we just need to try to avoid it.”
Ken Trump, who has over 35 years of school safety experience and is president of National School Safety and Security Services, said while schools are under enormous pressure, debates about metal detectors in schools must go beyond initial emotional reactions.
“Administrators are making emotional reactions to the emotional reactions of parents and their school community by putting in shiny objects that you can point to and tell parents, students and staff, ‘See, we’ve made the school safer,” he said. “Oftentimes, good security is less visible, or even invisible, but more impactful. The first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body.
“The No. 1 way we find out about weapons plots and kids who are gonna cause harm to themselves and others is when a kid comes forward and tells an adult they trust. So it’s about relationships. It’s about connectedness. It’s about kids feeling that they can go to the adult and tell them about those things.”
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Sydnee Gonzalez is a multicultural reporter for KSL.com covering the diversity of Utah’s people and communities. Se habla español. You can find Sydnee at @sydnee_gonzalez on Twitter.