More than 100,000 NYC schoolchildren, or about 1 in 4 middle and high schoolers, have to subject themselves to airport-style security—belts, and shoes off, wanding afterwards, the whole deal—every day. ProPublica and WNYC report that more than 236 schools have metal detectors at their entrances, and that though crime is down dramatically, few weapons are confiscated as a result of the security measures, and there hasn't been a shooting in a city school since 2002, there seems to be little will on the part of politicians and school administrators to remove the machines.
Use of the scanners persists despite advocates' arguments that they, along with the NYPD officers stationed in schools, create a jail-like atmosphere that disproportionately affects students of color, and increases their likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. Reporters found that black and Hispanic students are three times more likely to have metal detectors at their schools, and another recent investigation found that nearly half of all African-American high schoolers contend with them. Mayor de Blasio has said he wants to counteract these dynamics and emphasize deescalation by police and school staff, rather than arrests and suspension, use of which has been on the rise at the city's most troubled schools.
Last July, a task force commissioned by the mayor recommended that the city reassess the need for metal detectors and create a process for removing them. "Because some students see metal detectors at schools as intrusive and denigrating, schools should ensure that the scanning process is as minimally intrusive as possible," the task force report (pdf) reads.
The city introduced the metal detectors after two students were shot to death at Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York in 1992, on a day that then-mayor David Dinkins was scheduled to address rising violence at the school. The city first put them in 16 schools, then 40, and still more leading up to the present day.
Since 1998, only two permanent metal detectors have been removed. And their necessity appears almost never re-evaluated: The scanners have remained after the schools in which they were installed shut down and entirely new schools opened in the same buildings.
And while some principals say the security measures provide a critical line of defense at schools with particularly volatile mixes of students, few believe more than 200 New York City schools still meet this bar.
As prescribed by the task force report, titled "Safety with Dignity," the NYPD and Department of Education are supposed to be reviewing scanner protocol and considering ideas from less-frequent use to outright removal, but so far they have not taken any public action. A DOE spokeswoman declined to comment on what the plan is.
The head of the NYPD school safety agent union was happy to weigh in, though.
"'Security with dignity,'" Greg Floyd of Teamsters Local 237 told ProPublica. "I don’t know how you have the two in the same sentence."
Some kids just need tough love, he explained.
"Would I say, put metal detectors in Brooklyn Tech? I would not," Floyd said. The kids there, he explained, are "committed to learning, they’re not committed to fighting. That’s not the case in every New York City public school, and you can’t say, ‘Treat the children the same’ because we don’t do that."
In the first two months of the school year, the NYPD scanned 3 million times and recovered just 126 possible weapons, including 1 gun and 73 knives. Judy Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, is trying to get the Education Department to remove the detectors at the entrance to her school, which date back to when her building housed the notorious and stigmatized John Jay High School.
"It’s very hard to have a rational conversation when you’re talking about the possibility of something happening," Bloomberg told ProPublica. "They make a lot of people feel safe: it doesn’t mean they make them safe and it doesn’t mean that they’ve considered what they give up."
This is far from the first time that the use of metal detectors has been questioned, but the issue has gotten more oxygen under de Blasio. Still, opinions are far from a consensus—for instance, all high schools in Philadelphia have metal detectors, including prestigious ones, offering a model for a different, more Orwellian kind of equality than the one proposed by principal Bloomberg and activist students. Others think the de Blasio administration's tentative nods toward reducing arrests and suspensions don't go far enough, and that reforms shouldn't stop short of total removal of the NYPD from schools.
My school was like a jail metal detectors then 2nd hand wand .! 🙆😒 NYC schools
— Yenssy (@Yenssy_Cruz) September 25, 2013
Cops and metal detectors in NYC schools have been a disaster. More disorder, crappier education. Plenty of stats here: http://t.co/KeqvLQup
— Chase Madar (@ChMadar) December 21, 2012
Thank God for metal detectors in (some) NYC schools
— Pastor Courvoisier (@StevieKnicks21) September 30, 2014
@Rosa The easiest way around the metal detectors at NYC public schools was with a brown lunch bag and tinfoil. Alt. being friendly w/ guards
— Alberto Lima (@AL_Write) October 5, 2012
Yesterday's fatal shooting of a teenager near two school campuses in East New York, one of them the former site of Thomas Jefferson High School, is not likely to bring the debate any nearer to a resolution.