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Metal detectors in schools iffy at best

Profile image for Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial
Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial

Public officials and average citizens alike are searching for solutions to protect schools from mass shooting incidents. And that brings us to metal detectors, or magnetometers.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said Monday she'll introduce legislation to create a federal grant program for schools interested in installing metal detectors after the Feb. 14 Florida school shooting that took 17 lives.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Granger said the proposal -- which she hopes to submit by the end of next week -- would fully fund the installation for schools that have their detailed security plans approved by federal officials.

Like so many ideas that sound good at first blush, metal detectors in schools are problematic for several reasons. Investigations of security procedures at some urban schools have revealed that magnetometers were unplugged for days, rendering them useless.

But why, you ask, would a school district buy the expensive machines and then unplug them?

One reason is the screening process can be time-consuming and cumbersome. Have you ever been stuck in a long line of people emptying their pockets and retrieving their wallets and loose change from trays? Have you seen someone who set off the alarm being wanded by a security guard with a handheld device?

Now, imagine all this happening as the tardy bell rings to start the first class of the day. And the line of students stretches to the street.

The school day can be chaotic. For example, the person assigned to sit at the metal detector as students file through the door is likely a teacher or staff member with many other duties. It's not like a Transportation Security Administration employee at the airport whose only responsibility is to check airline passengers for weaponry.

So, the "mag monitor" calls in sick and the principal can't find a teacher with a spare hour to fill in and check students coming to school through the front door. So, out of desperation, the machine gets unplugged for a day, and that day turns into two or three.

Another flaw is that every door in a massive middle school or high school campus -- gym doors, auditorium doors, cafeteria doors, etc. -- will not be equipped with magnetometers. And they cannot all be locked because fire codes require exits to remain open for escape if needed. And an active shooter can turn those exits into entry points.

Granger's legislative proposal would let local officials determine how best to improve safety for their schools. It would require interested schools to work with local law enforcement to qualify for the grant, and it would require approved schools to limit their entrances so the metal detectors provide protection.

The bill would authorize $500 million over 10 years for the federal grant program. It would then be up to the U.S. House Appropriations Committee to decide whether to fund the program each year.

Granger proposes her legislation in good faith. Like the rest of us, she is struggling for an answer.

"I thought ... what can we do that's almost immediate?" she said. "To show the teachers and students that, yes, we can do something, and we really do care? We're not just saying, you know, 'Isn't that awful?' and walking away from it."

We appreciate the idea, but magnetometers probably are not the answer. It would be too simple.