Do metal detectors keep schools safe? Chicago school board wades into debate.

Each day, thousands of Chicago students walk through metal detectors and put their backpacks through X-ray machines designed to check for weapons and keep schools safe.

On Wednesday, the city’s new school board approved $2.4 million to replace those machines with newer versions, even as they discussed whether the hulking metal devices actually keep students safe or whether such investments are misplaced.

“You can have equipment and not have the right climate and it won’t work and vice versa,” said Jadine Chou, chief of safety and security at the district, who nonetheless asked the board to approve the contracts. “As our thinking evolves on this, we may start moving in a different direction.”

The vote came up as the school district hosts citywide meetings about policing in schools this week. The meetings have raised questions about police accountability, transparency, over-patrolling youth of color, and, more generally, how schools handle safety and discipline. 

Chicago Public Schools did not respond to a deadline request for the number of high schools currently with screening equipment.

Chou said her team is working with schools to find the right balance between culture-based solutions and preventive measures like metal detectors.  Schools must go through their local school council to decide if they want metal detectors on campus, she said.

“How do we keep kids safe? It’s a part of climate, a part of relationships,” Chou said. “We want to work with all of our schools to make sure we have the right balance.” 

Each metal detector costs $3,350, according to district documents. 

Citing safety concerns, a group of Illinois lawmakers tried but failed to advance a bill last fall to require every K-12 school in the state to install a metal detector. Educators pushed back, saying that the costs would be too high and that research had not proved their efficacy. 

Chou noted that since she started at the district in 2011, the understanding of school safety has shifted from “zero tolerance” of any type of weapon to a more holistic approach, and the district is ready to shift away from metal detectors if evidence suggests.

Board member Elizabeth Todd Breland said a majority of elementary schools and plenty of high schools are keeping children safe without metal detectors or X-ray machines. 

Chou agreed with Todd Breland, saying the machines have become a “controversial topic.” She added that the local school councils that govern each campus have the option to remove the machines, but only one school has inquired about that, and ended up leaving the equipment in place.