This year, metal detectors in NYC schools are even more impractical

Campuses with scanners face an additional hurdle as they attempt to reopen.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Hundreds of thousands of New York City students are heading back to school buildings in the coming days. Many of us have not seen our friends since schools were closed in March because of COVID-19. Some of us lost loved ones to the virus. Now, as we nervously return to our classrooms, some 100,000 mostly brown and Black students could face an unwelcome sight should they return in person: metal detectors. 

School officials are scrambling to figure out how to open schools in a way that mitigates the risk of spreading COVID-19. This is a logistical nightmare for all schools, but those with metal detectors face an extra challenge. 

Samantha Charles (Courtesy photo)

Instead of focusing their reopening efforts solely on things like making sure every school has a nurse on campus and that all students can take part in remote learning, resources will be devoted to operating metal detectors. How will students be spaced out as they wait to go through the machines? How will educators ensure that students who are already behind in the wake of school shutdowns in March don’t miss more class time in line? 

Having experienced metal detectors every day at my middle school, I can attest that going through them is extremely time consuming and inconvenient, especially on the first day of school. Metal detectors are supposed to make us feel safer inside the school building, but I felt safer without them. Their presence at my former middle school made me feel like my school was a dangerous place, and that at any given moment something bad could happen. This level of security made us feel like criminals when we were just headed to school — checking our bags, patting us down. There were frequent technical difficulties with the metal detectors, and getting through them could take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes. 

My high school randomly had metal detector scanning once last year. It caused most of the students, including me, to miss our first period due to the long lines. Some students even missed part of second period. Officers would take things that couldn’t be used as weapons. My friend, for example, had his cologne confiscated.

After two delays, our school building is expected to open Oct. 1. If I was scanned at school this year, I would be really mad. I would also genuinely wonder how it would work. To use a metal detector amid social distancing protocols would mean lining up on the sidewalk outside the school building. There just isn’t room inside. What happens in bad weather? What happens when students keep missing the beginning of the school day because they are waiting to be screened?

And this is all so that schools can use devices that make campuses feel like jails and that even a recent Trump administration report said have no verifiable effect on school safety.

“The impact of metal detectors, X-ray machines, and similar screening technologies on school violence is questionable, with at least one study concluding that metal detectors have no apparent effect on reducing violence on school grounds,” the report stated. 

There’s an economic component, too. At the time when city budgets are stretched thin, it costs money to staff metal detectors with salaried school safety officers. Imagine how much better off we’d be if instead of sending police to search students, schools could employ the same number of mental health counselors. 

Since 2016, the NYPD has been legally required to collect information on the department’s use of metal detectors in schools and report that information to the City Council. But police have failed to do so — meaning the public doesn’t know exactly how many metal detectors are deployed in schools and at which campuses. 

This month, the New York Civil Liberties Union, where I am a teen organizer, sued the NYPD over its years-long refusal to turn over this information that is critical for understanding the department’s role in our schools.

I know, first hand, what it’s like to walk through metal detectors en route to school. And I know we must work to reduce — and gradually eliminate — these scans. In normal times, they do little to make our campuses safer. In the era of social distancing, they’re also just plain impractical. 

Samantha Charles is a sophomore at the Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology and an organizer at the NYCLU’s Teen Activist Project.