I am a high school social studies teacher, and for two weeks every year, I report to a school with scanners to score Regents exams. I wait in line with students and follow their routine. I empty my pockets into a plastic tray and putting my bag on the conveyor belt. I am watched as I gather my things once they’ve passed inspection.
I know the supposed purpose of this process is school safety, but every time I walk into this building, it’s unsettling. It’s hard for me to imagine working here — and I certainly cannot picture learning here.
This month, more than 100,000 New York City students started their school year by walking through a scanner. Since scanners were first introduced in 1992, they have only been removed from two schools, primarily because there is no process to reevaluate their necessity.
That appears to be about to change. Prior to the start of this school year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would clarify the process for considering if and where scanners are truly needed. And the release of new data just last week by the New York Police Department and New York City Department of Education, showing that our schools are the safest that they have ever been, feels like an important opportunity to follow through on that promise.
But others, including the union representing school safety agents, aren’t convinced. And through all of the back and forth, key voices have been absent from these pivotal conversations: those of students and teachers, even though we will be directly affected by the outcomes.
So I asked my students what they thought. One of my students, Justin, summed it up: “At first, scanners definitely make people feel safe and make kids think twice about doing something wrong. But after a while, most people have that mentality that [school] isn’t the place for weapons, and then [scanners] are not necessary anymore, because the school’s culture isn’t violent.”
To Justin, school climate and discipline are inextricably linked. “Metal detectors give off that vibe that the school is saying ‘We can’t trust you,” he explained. That “vibe” is unfortunately all too familiar to Justin, who attended a middle school with scanners and has friends who have continued on to high schools with metal detectors installed.
To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to keep scanners in some schools. All students should feel safe at school, and we shouldn’t remove scanners from buildings where the school and surrounding community has done a recent evaluation and found scanners to be effective.
But it’s clear that many scanners are a part of daily life for plenty of students and teachers who see them as unnecessary and discriminatory.
Black and Latino students comprise over 85 percent of all students who walk through school scanners daily, while their white and Asian counterparts account for a combined 12 percent. Sixty-two percent of Bronx schools have scanners, while not one school in Staten Island does. And students notice.
“It seems like there’s no escaping the idea that kids who grow up in neighborhoods like this are dangerous or something,” another one of my students said. “School is supposed to help with that, but the way it happens, that isn’t always the case.”
Schools and communities often become overwhelmed when thinking about how to address systemic injustices — and that is certainly a part of what has prevented reforms to metal detector policies for two-and-a-half decades. But today we have a clear opportunity to address one, and we cannot afford to put it off any longer.
After all, school safety is about so much more than scanners. Some schools are already taking steps in the right direction, such as providing wraparound services to address underlying causes of violence in schools. Others are participating in a pilot program to train teachers in restorative justice approaches and reduce suspensions.
We need to expand these kinds of innovative approaches. We also need to create a process to remove scanners from schools where they are doing more harm than good. And let’s not forget to involve teachers and students in that process, too.