On the coldest morning New York City has seen this winter, a stream of teenage students hit a bottleneck at the front of a Brooklyn school building. They shed their jackets, gloves, and belts, shivering as they wait to pass through a metal detector and send their backpacks through an X-ray machine. School-safety agents stand nearby, poised to step in if the alarm bleats.
It’s an everyday occurrence for more than 100,000 middle and high-school students across the city.
On this morning, as on every school day, senior Justin Feldeo prepares to be pulled aside for separate screening by a hand wand. Feldeo is studying to be a firefighter and the boots he wears for class trigger the metal detectors.
Fifteen minutes after the formal start of the school day, students are still pouring in, even later for having to go through the machines.
Almost as many New York City students run the gauntlet of X-ray machines each day as pass through the scanners at busy Miami International Airport. And the procedure is numbingly similar. Students must remove belts, shoes, and sometimes bobby pins as the wait stretches as long as an hour.
A ProPublica survey found that the daily ritual is borne disproportionately by students of color; black and Hispanic students in high school are nearly three times more likely to walk through a metal detector than their white counterparts.
Nearly 21 years after a fearful city installed them at the front doors of more than 80 schools, there are growing questions about whether the security precautions do more harm than good. Today, by ProPublica and WNYC’s count, students at more than 236 New York City schools are required to pass through metal detectors.
“There are a lot of things that are done in the name of student safety that don’t view the students as the people who need to be protected, but view the students as the people somebody else needs to be protected from,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a secondary school with 423 students in grades 6 through 12. She is trying to get the scanners removed from her building in Brooklyn.
The metal detectors were first installed in the early 1990s when crime rates were much higher and have stayed in place even as crime in the public schools has fallen 48 percent over the past 10 years. Crime in schools in the last year alone has fallen 11 percent, according to the New York Police Department.
Since 1998, only two permanent metal detectors have been removed. And their necessity appears almost never re-evaluated: The scanners have remained after the schools in which they were installed shut down and entirely new schools opened in the same buildings.
And while some principals say the security measures provide a critical line of defense at schools with particularly volatile mixes of students, few believe more than 200 New York City schools still meet this bar.
In a report called “Security With Dignity,” a task force created by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended last July that the city remove some metal detectors. The NYPD agreed to study the issue, but has provided no timeline. And nearly six months later, the Department of Education has yet to publicize criteria for removing them.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education would not comment on a plan for removing the metal detectors. “We will continue to ensure students are in safe environments where they can learn and succeed,” said Toya Holness, a deputy press secretary.
The recommendations have faced stiff opposition from the union which represents the New York City school district’s over 5,000 safety agents, who are technically part of the NYPD.
“‘Security with dignity,’” said Greg Floyd, the head of Teamsters Local 237. “I don’t know how you have the two in the same sentence.”
Floyd said the metal detectors are working as an effective deterrent and warned that the task force should be wary about cheering their removal. “In this case, they better very well hope they work, because if they don’t, then they all have problems,” he said.
And Floyd brushed aside the complaints that the scanners are used primarily in schools serving low-income black and Hispanic students. Children from those neighborhoods, he said, often require them.
“Would I say, put metal detectors in Brooklyn Tech? I would not,” Floyd said, because the students there, “some from affluent neighborhoods,” are “committed to learning, they’re not committed to fighting. That’s not the case in every New York City public school, and you can’t say, ‘Treat the children the same’ because we don’t do that.”
Despite the widespread use of the scanners, the amount of contraband found is low. In the approximately 3 million scans conducted in the first two months of this school year, only a tiny number of contraband items were discovered, according to a NYPD document obtained by ProPublica. Among the 126 possible weapons seized at schools that scan daily—some found hidden on school grounds, others by scanners—were an unloaded handgun, 73 knives, 21 boxcutters, three BB guns, and an assortment of loose bullets and razor blades.
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For Jennings, what matters most is the students’ mindset as they go through the detectors.
“It won’t be the first time they get scanned, it won’t be the first time that someone looks at them in a way that’s less than complimentary” because of race, gender or ethnicity, he said. “Helping them learn how to cope with that, and seeing themselves as bigger than the opinion of another man or woman is what I think gets them through.”
One of the few school buildings that has managed to remove the scanners, the former Eastern District High School in Brooklyn, did so by enlisting students in the effort to quell violence. In 2006, the high school was on its way to be shut down and replaced by three smaller schools in the same building. The three new principals joined forces with elected local officials, parents and persuaded the Board of Education to remove the machines.
“We came in as wide-eyed, idealistic, newbies, and we wanted to change things,” said William Jusino, principal of Progress High School, one of the schools that moved into the building. Eastern District, he said, used to have such a bad reputation as a “dumping ground for difficult children and staff” that local shops would close down when school got out only to reopen later. “We wanted to make sure that we avoided that,” Jusino said. “That we didn’t grow into that type of situation.”
Jusino and the other principals took a stance that the metal detectors had to go even though everyone was “never 100 percent sure it was a good idea.” District officials gave the new schools their chance to rethink school safety.
For the first two years, Jusino recalled, students were reminded on a daily basis: They were being trusted to not bring in weapons into the schools.
“We’ve been on high alert ever since,” Jusino said, “You’ve gotta make sure that there isn’t a serious incident, god forbid, and how could you make sure? How could you guarantee that? You really can’t. What you could do is invest in your children.”
The most serious challenge to the scanner-less approach came last January when two Progress High School students were shot in connection with gang activity a few blocks from the school. Deans ushered kids inside and pop-up metal detectors were stationed in the building.
“Folks were genuinely afraid and anxious, and I understood it. I’m anxious every day,” Jusino said, recalling a emergency staff meeting at which several faculty members expressed their desire to have metal detectors back. “But the answer is not the machines, the answer’s the relationships. The answer’s giving kids options in the school.”
“Weapons will get into the building without metal detectors. Weapons will get into a building with metal detectors,” Jusino said. “The idea is ‘What do you do. What programs do you do. What’s the trust and values you have in your school.’”
This article appears courtesy of ProPublica.