It’s 8:10 a.m. and the bell at Grady High School will ring in five minutes. Several dozen students stand outside in 35 degree weather, waiting to walk through a metal detector and have their bags searched by latex-gloved teachers and administrators.
Metal detectors have been in use for years, but these extensive inspections at every Atlanta middle and high school started after a 14-year-old boy was shot with a handgun during a fight involving gang members at Price Middle School in January.
School district records show that Atlanta’s 66 metal detectors in schools, which have cost the district $280,000, have discovered only two weapons since 2009 — a knife and a Taser. Now, shortly after the massacre of 20 first-graders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., local school administrators said they are re-evaluating when, where and how to use metal detectors most effectively.
Education experts, students and parents question whether metal detectors deter gun violence and if students should have to be screened and patted down to get an education.
“Metal detectors are effective,” said Marquenta Sands, the director of safety and security for Atlanta Public Schools. “However, the detectors are only one piece of the school safety and security puzzle that we must solve.” She said, “We should do whatever it takes to ensure that students and staff members are safe. I’m not sure if installing additional metal detectors is the only answer.”
Only two days after Grady High School officials moved from random checks to the labor-intensive screenings at the doors, a student bypassed security safeguards by opening a gym door for Morgan Tukes, a 17-year-old with a troubled past and a pink .380-caliber pistol in her left pocket. The gun went off, shooting her in the leg.
As of Feb. 12, 12 of Atlanta’s detectors were either missing, lacked a power cord or weren’t working. Administrators say a detector in Price Middle School’s cafeteria was inoperable at the time of the shooting there, which occurred outside while students transferred between class.
In Cobb, several principals have been equipped with metal-detecting wands to search students. Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb administrators have placedwalk-through detectors at several alternative schools, where fights are more likely to break out. DeKalb spends $45,000 annually to staff and manage metal detectors, three of which don’t work, at its athletic events. No weapons have been confiscated this year because of those detectors, records show.
Fulton County recently placed metal detectors at its central office and at Dunwoody Springs Elementary School, which hosts the district’s board meetings.
“If students know you have a metal detector, one of two things are going to happen: it’s going to be a deterrent or they’re going to figure out a way to get around it,” said Ron Storey, the executive director of Cobb County School District’s Department of Public Safety.
Clayton administrators temporarily turned off the seven detectors at the county’s high schools after finding they weren’t being used consistently or appropriately.
Students at Grady said they’ve come to accept the detectors as part of school life, and several said they feel more secure because of them.
“I feel safer because it makes it harder to get anything in,” said Channing Cloud, a senior.
But they know the loopholes: Someone could leave a weapon in a car to be retrieved later in the day, for example, or sneak into an unprotected side door when someone exits.
“The metal detectors don’t do any good,” said Grady sophomore India Kanu. “They should have something like metal detectors or guards at every door.”
But, “Our schools were not designed to be fortresses,” Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis has repeatedly said. “They were designed to be places of learning.”
School violence has steadily declined in Georgia public schools, according to state data. The number of disciplinary or violent incidents districts reported plunged from 1.1 million in 2007 to 786,608 last year.
The number of weapons found in schools has also declined, to 3,796 last year; 746 fewer than were found in 2009. Most of those weapons were knives. Fewer than 200 were guns.
Legislation to allow school administrators to carry weapons was passed by the Georgia House and awaits action in the Senate.
Atlanta Public Schools spent $9 million on school security last year alone, more than any other local district.
Administrators say gang wars and neighborhood disputes often seep into school hallways, sometimes erupting in violence.
Grady High School’s sprawling campus is just east of Midtown skyscrapers. Its two cafeteria entrances have large gray metal detectors, which cost about $4,000 each.
The school, with 1,200 students, dedicates five employees to each of those entrances, with four searching bags and one using a handheld metal-searching wand on students who set off thedetectors.
During a recent school morning of pat-downs, an assistant principal confiscated a lighter from a student. The rest of the students were cleared to go on to class, though several were late.
Administrators say keeping weapons off campus is a complex process that requires a blend of strategies.
Storey said Cobb school officials often depend on students to tell them about their peers who might have brought weapons to school.
“A lot of it is relationship building,” said Storey.
Reynard Walker, Clayton County schools’ manager of safety and security, said principals use metal detectors when local police tip them off to a neighborhood dispute.
Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, said administrators face a dilemma: “Every time you add another layer of security … you certainly begin to change the climate of a school from a place that is perceived as open and accessible to one that’s restrictive and controlling,” he said. “Oftentimes, there is a delicate balance between keeping schools safe without turning them into an armed camp or juvenile facility.”
Atlanta central office administrators, meanwhile, have encouraged principals and school staff through several public announcements to report broken metal detectors.
Jamie Fahey, a mother of a freshman at Grady, wants more detectors.
“I do like the fact that our school has metal detectors,” she said. “Kids are going to open doors for their friends, so we’re dependent on our children to maintain the safety of our schools.”
Jeffry Scott and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this story.
How we got this story
In our continuing look at school safety issues, AJC reporters asked local school officials for records on the costs and use of metal detectors including their maintenance records. We also interviewed experts, school officials and parents and students at Grady High School. We also took a closer look at two recent shootings at Atlanta public schools.
By the numbers
66 — metal detectors in Atlanta public schools
2 — weapons found by those metal detectors since 2009
12 — Atlanta schools’ metal detectors not working as of Feb. 12
3,796 — weapons (mostly knives) found in Georgia public schools last year
$280,000 – amount Atlanta schools has spent on metal detectors
$4,000 – approximate price of one metal detector
$9 million – amount Atlanta Public Schools spent on school security last year