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From the archives: School District implements daily weapons searches

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Fall 1999 print edition:

by Paul Socolar

Philadelphia ‘s school safety problems took center stage this fall after the shooting of an assistant principal in a scuffle with a Bartram student and the murder of a King High School 10th grader outside school, both in October.

School officials in Philadelphia. like those around the country, were already feeling the urgency of addressing safety issues in the wake of the recent string of school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The most visible response of the School District this fall was a unanimous school board decision in October to order enough airport-style metal detectors, x-ray machines, and ID card scanners to equip all Philadelphia high schools. The estimated cost of the equipment and additional staff support is $5 million.

The School District has begun implementing the time-consuming, daily weapons search procedures with students, disrupting the morning schedule at a number of high schools across the city.

The long lines of students waiting to be searched each morning — in schools that house mostly students of color — have provoked many reactions like that of City Councilman Angel Ortiz, who commented, "The tragedy is we’re making our schools more like prisons rather than intellectual centers."

But in a system desperately struggling to address serious safety problems in and around schools, many students, parents, and staff say they are willing to give the mandatory daily weapons searches a try.

Twelve comprehensive high schools already had metal detectors on the way before the board decision. These schools came on line with their new metal detectors in October. A total of 14 high schools now require their students to pass through the metal detectors every morning.

With more equipment to order and staff to hire for the remaining high schools, it may be February or March before all the systems are up and running, according to John J. McLees, executive director of the office of school safety.

While enough equipment was ordered for all the high schools, safety officials including Police Commissioner John Timoney will make the final decisions about where the equipment is to be placed.

High schools where there have been few serious incidents may be bypassed in order to provide the equipment to middle or high schools where the need is deemed to be greater, District spokesman Paul Hanson said.

The October board decision to mandate the use of walk-through metal detectors and other new security equipment followed embarrassing revelations that two new metal detector systems had been "gathering dust" for several months at Bartram and were still waiting to be installed when the shooting occurred at the high school.

While some school board members initially called for further input and planning, board member Andrew Famese expressed his sense of urgency after the experience at Bartram.

"I don’t want my hands with blood tomorrow if something happens in a school," Famese said. "We must do everything humanly possible regardless of the money."

Both the teachers’ and principals’ unions supported the proposal to put the new equipment in all high schools.

"Students, parents, and school employees feel more secure with metal detectors operating in schools," said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers vice-president Jerry Jordan, who supported metal detectors as part of a seven-point program for addressing school safety.

Before the board’s decision, members heard reports on what was described as a successful piloting of the security equipment last year at two schools: Ben Franklin High School and E.S. Miller, a small, disciplinary high school. Weapons have not been found inside those school buildings since the installation, officials said.

But the logistical issues involved in shepherding students through metal detectors were simpler at these schools. Franklin is one of the city’s five smallest comprehensive high schools.

Nationally, many school safety experts emphasize stronger community-building efforts rather than policing tactics and are skeptical about the benefits of metal detectors.

Advocates of a community-building safety strategy say that focusing narrowly on weapons within school walls does not address the need to create a safe and respectful school climate that is engaging to students and free from physical violence and harassment. Nor do the weapons searches strengthen a school’s connections and presence in the surrounding community.

The District’s latest security initiatives have raised a number of new challenges.

Loss of class time

Implementing the weapons searches has caused major disruptions of the morning routine and loss of class time, particularly at larger high schools.

Even after a month of logistical adjustments, students at several schools surveyed by the Notebook were regularly missing a portion of their first academic period because of the long wait to get searched. The morning jam-up has created a major new obstacle for schools attempting to enforce consistent policies on student lateness.

"We are working on developing the most efficient and effective screening process," said safety director McLees. "I think that can be worked out over time."

He added that schools may have to do some "redesigning of the beginning of the day" to accommodate the weapons searches.

Lack of student input

Student concern about the violence was reflected by an outpouring of concern and grief by King students and an emergence of student activism at Bartram.

But the District so far has missed the opportunity to involve students in developing a response to escalating violence and to strategize about how to develop a more cohesive and respectful school climate.

"Our view is that if you want to establish an orderly environment in the school, student voices are going to have to be part of the process," said Bill Kaplan, assistant director of the Philadelphia Student Union. This fall, the Student Union has begun work with a new student chapter at Bartram.

Little say for schools

A basic decision about school security procedure was dictated by the Board, even though security is an area where plans and decisions are normally made on site by the principal or school council.

Some principals have expressed their desire not to have the new metal detectors installed at their schools.

Some schools have experimented with performing searches on a random portion of the students entering the school, rather than 100% of students. But the Board’s policy resolution offers no flexibility. It says that students — and in fact all people entering high school buildings — must go through the weapons search.

Unequal treatment

While the Board resolution calls for all high schools to get the metal detectors, it appears unlikely that this will happen. Some of the District’s special admissions schools are among those not expecting to be subjected to the searches on the basis that there are few "serious incident" reports at these schools.

In addition, despite the Board’s mandate to treat all those entering school buildings the same — to search everyone — there are no indications so far as to whether or when staff and adult visitors will be subject to weapons searches.

What to do with offenders

There are continued questions about District policies toward disciplining "disruptive students" and punishing weapons offenders.

The state House of Representatives voted in October to launch an investigation of violence in Philadelphia schools. State legislators championing expulsions as the solution to disciplinary problems questioned why less than 2 percent of Philadelphia students caught with weapons are expelled, despite Act 26, a strict state law mandating one-year expulsion except when the superintendent recommends leniency.

District officials respond that special consideration is given to cases involving very young students and students with clean records, or cases where the "weapon" may be something less dangerous than a gun or a knife.

But critics say the District allows too many offenders to return to their own school or simply transfer to another neighborhood school. Many weapons offenders are transferred to tile District’s disciplinary schools — Shallcross, Miller, and Boone. The District also runs six ABLE Academies, set up as temporary, alternative placements for middle school students. But District officials have acknowledged serious inadequacies in these programs.

District officials are exploring a contractual arrangement with a for-profit, Texas-based company to replace the existing remedial discipline schools.

• • •

The District continues to maintain a variety of other safe schools initiatives, coordinated by tile District’s Family Resource network. These include:

  • the 24-hour Safe Schools Hotline, (215) 299-SAFE, for reporting any information, including anonymous tips, relating to school safety.
  • the crisis intervention and preventive education work of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network.
  • Safe Corridors programs to protect students going to and from school.
  • peer mediation and conflict resolution programs providing nonviolence training to students.
  • afterschool recreation programs in 120 gyms throughout the city, run in partnership with the Recreation Department.
  • Philadelphia Safe and Sound. a youth safety initiative which has placed two antiviolence workers each in Olney, Bartram, and South Philadelphia high schools.