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Can weapon detectors actually make schools safer in Arizona?

The Phoenix Union High School District decided late last year to pilot a new kind of security measure at a couple of its schools: weapon detectors. That follows the decision by Mesa Public Schools to incorporate them, as well as vape sensors in bathrooms.

Students at many school already have to pass through metal detectors to get inside, and Elizabeth Anthony says they’ve become such a big part of life — walking through them at the airport, at concerts and lots of other places. But, she says it’s a very different thing at schools.

Anthony is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, where she studies resilience among young people exposed to adversity.

She joined The Show to talk about what she makes of these weapon detectors as opposed to metal detectors, which can be set off by things like car keys or a phone.

MARK BRODIE: First off, I'm curious what you make of these weapons detectors as opposed to metal detectors, which can be set off by, you know, things like car keys or a phone or something like that.

ELIZABETH ANTHONY: Well, that's certainly an improvement because it's getting more efficient, so hopefully it can do its job more quickly. So, one of the things we wanna think about with metal detectors in schools is does it slow the process of young people trying to get into the school and learning environment.

And so, absolutely, I think the more efficient metal detectors make great sense.

BRODIE: What do the data say about how effective metal detectors are in terms of keeping weapons and other contraband out of schools and to some extent making those schools safer?

ANTHONY: So, unfortunately, the data is very limited in terms of demonstrating effectiveness of metal detectors.

So even in the cases where it may limit the number of contraband coming onto campus, we've had examples where a shooter shoots out the person who is manning the metal detector and goes ahead on campus.

So if someone wants to get on campus to conduct violence, a metal detector is not going to stop them.

BRODIE: Is the metal detector maybe more effective for the, I guess for lack of a better word, the impulsive act, somebody who isn't necessarily planning on doing something but decides sort of in the moment to do it to maybe stop that sort of thing from happening?

ANTHONY:  Yes, and that's a great suggestion. Unfortunately, the data suggests still that a basic search is just as effective as a metal detector. So then, here, we're talking about cost. 

BRODIE: Right, and these metal detectors are not inexpensive, right? To either buy them or to rent them. So like how does the cost benefit analysis sort of play out in terms of having the technology versus having people doing that kind of job?

ANTHONY: It's very much the same in some ways as the other school hardening techniques. So for example, school resource officers, so the data really suggests that personalized approaches are just as effective.

And so using personnel that already work in a school, for example, may be just as effective and more relational approaches are good for kids.

BRODIE: So in other words, a student who maybe is questioned or searched by somebody that they know from school, like an adult that they know and trust is better maybe than either somebody that they don't know or even a piece of machinery?

ANTHONY: Yes, so if we go back to the idea of our schools becoming more like prisons or more like learning institutions, it reinforces the idea — which we're trying to reinforce with students — this is a place you want to be. This is a place you're welcome. This is a place where we conduct learning.

BRODIE: How easy or difficult is it to find somebody to do that job, especially somebody that students will know and trust, given all of the controversy we've seen and heard about school resource officers and other law enforcement folks in schools, and you know, sometimes administrators, for example, aren't always the most beloved people on campus either.

ANTHONY: That's a great point and it's hard to say who would be most willing to conduct that job. But I think the common piece of information to take from that is if it's individuals, the young people know on a daily basis, it's more likely to reinforce their trust in the school system.

BRODIE: Are there other things that are maybe — if not equally — effective but also effective to some extent, to try to keep school safe and to try to keep weapons and other things that shouldn't be in schools out of them?

ANTHONY: Well, we think about sort of a multi-pronged approach where we're addressing mental health issues. We're identifying young people with violent tendencies early, we're providing support in multiple places. We're teaching young people how to communicate with each other, how to handle conflict, and then we're also training teachers on crisis response.

BRODIE: How do you think that the school district should ultimately evaluate whether or not the test period is successful? And I ask because like, if the detectors find some number of weapons and they're kept out of school clearly, you know, it seems like they would work.

However, if they don't find something, that could mean that students didn't bring anything or try to bring anything, it also could mean that the machines themselves didn't do their jobs. So, I wonder what metrics you would be using or advising the districts to use to try to determine if these worked and if the district should be investing in them further.

ANTHONY: So they could do sort of a pre-post approach where they look at how many, well, in this case, both, knives and guns on campus have come before the metal detectors and how many after. But again, one of the things that is concerning about this approach is that — the cost for school systems in general.

BRODIE: Is your concern that money will go toward these kinds of things as opposed to books or technology or teachers or things like that?

ANTHONY: Absolutely. So in the past, we have seen money diverted from counselors, for example, for police officers in schools. And so currently I believe they're funding both. So if we have unlimited funds, I have kids who go to public school and I don't mind them having to go through a metal detector to get into class, but I wouldn't want it to be in place of some other type of learning opportunity for them, given the mixed evidence.

BRODIE: Well, so what's the balance then? Because as you say, you know, there are a lot of needs in schools and, you know, there's a lot of data that suggests that if students don't feel safe in school, then they're not going to learn well. So like what's the right balance of allocating money to sort of learning and teaching versus safety and security?

ANTHONY: Yes, I think we definitely can do what we can to make schools safe and I think schools are doing that. So since COVID, we've seen locked facilities, people are not wandering randomly on campus. There's certainly a sense of things being a lot tighter.

So I think schools should get credit for already doing what they can to keep their campuses safe. But I think we want to make these decisions, not out of fear, but out of an evidence-informed approach.

So I would say when we look at the evidence and when we look at our current funding situation, we should be really asking important questions about whether it's worth it to spend this kind of money on something that hasn't proven to be effective in keeping schools safe. The other thing I want to point out is if we are considering metal detectors here in Arizona, I think the most appropriate way to do that would be to put them in all schools.

So don't just choose certain schools based on whether they're considered to be more high-risk for having weapons on campus, but to do it equally across the system.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.