Duval County school district officials said Tuesday they plan to buy enough metal detectors to put at least two in each high school, but instead of making students walk through them every day, they want to deploy them as needed to deal with threats.
The district is applying for about $4 million in earmarked state dollars to buy 44 portable, walk-through metal detectors, which district and school administrators would use to scan students and their bags.
The district also will buy hand-held scanners, enough for each high school to have five to 10, depending on enrollment, said Micheal Edwards, director of school police.
Schools will use the gear in cases of bomb or weapons threats, especially if district police are unable to determine if a threat is credible in time for the school to open the next day, he said. They also will use the metal detectors at high-attendance sporting events.
The proposed frequency of use is different from recent district discussions, which implied students would walk through metal detectors on a regular basis.
“Each high school will be provided two portable walk-through metal detectors to be used solely for mitigating a significant threat [bomb, shooting or other type] to high schools when the threat cannot be resolved prior to students, staff and others arriving at school,” Edwards said.
The district would keep two metal detectors to deploy as needed at other schools, he added.
It’s likely the district will receive the state grant if it meets the Dec. 1 deadline, he said. About $500,000 also would go to charter schools’ safety plans in the county.
In total the state has set aside $99 million for school safety improvements across Florida.
“We’re at the 11th hour. We need to decide which way to go,” said Assistant School Police Chief Wayne Clark during Tuesday’s School Board meeting. Several board members in attendance informally agreed with the plan.
“I’m glad each high school is getting them, and I’m glad they’ll only be utilized for credible threats,” said board member Warren Jones.
Using its own money, Duval already has ordered four other metal detectors to replace old ones at its alternative schools, which serve troubled students.
Ever since a former Broward County student shot and killed 17 people at a high school and wounded several others, the state and school districts have been beefing up school security and a spotlight has grown on the presence of weapons or threats at campuses.
So far there have been 29 incidents involving firearms at Duval high schools in the past four years, including one this year, Edwards said. Twenty-five students have been arrested since 2015-16, including two students this year for one firearm.
There also were 38 bomb threats at Duval high schools over the last four years, including one this year, he said.
The district averages about nine firearms and eight firearms arrests each year, he said, but the numbers are trending downward. That is because students are alerting adults to weapons and learning that threats to schools can lead to felony charges, he said.
Nevertheless, reaction to metal detectors has been mixed, with some community members asking if scanning children for weapons will foster a punitive or prison-like culture, while others say schools have to do something to be safer in an era of more frequent mass shootings.
Edwards said he at first believed that frequent, regular metal detector scans were needed, but he changed his mind after speaking with school administrators and district officials.
“The biggest issue for us was the increase in personnel that would be needed to do this on a daily basis,” he said, adding that the as-needed plan won’t require hiring additional staff.
The idea is to keep metal detectors and wands out of view, he said. If there’s a threat and police are unable to conclude that it’s fake, they’ll deploy the portable walk-through units at two locations at a school and likely use wands for other possible entry points, he said.
Some Duval high schools have up to six entrances, he said.
The walk-through units are faster and better at locating weapons than the hand-held wands are, he said. Once a signal alarm on the walk-through device sounds, then that student and their bags will be checked again using the wands.
School or district administrators will do the searches, in part because state law gives them more latitude to search without probable cause than police would have, Edwards said. Police staff would secure any weapons found.
“There is plenty of research out there that says when you have metal detectors, they do reduce the number of weapons and firearms entering a school,” he said. “But you understand that like anything else, there are ways to get around it.”
Walk-through scanners cost about $100,000 each, with the district’s half-off or more discount, Clark said.
What Duval plans to do with the scanning gear is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers in Hooverville, Ala.
Most high schools do not use walk-through metal detectors, he said. But those that do, use them more frequently on a regular basis, not as-needed, as Duval proposes, he said.
“The key things are policy and procedures and staffing,” Canady said.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re consistently using the technology properly and that staff is effectively trained. ... There has to be an all-in commitment that it’s going to be properly used. If not, it can very easily cause a false sense of security.”
Also, in some cases of mass shootings, there were no phoned-in threats or social media tip-offs ahead of time, he said. Duval’s plan is an unusual use for the detectors, Canady said.
“I’ve haven’t heard of anyone just putting it into play if there’s threats,” he said. “There are no easy answers. Metal detectors are only one piece of the puzzle.”
Metal detectors aren’t the only security changes in the works. The district recently created “threat assessment” teams at each school to comply with new state laws, Clark said.
These teams will each have a police officer, a principal, a school counselor and an educator. They will get mental health first-aid training and share information about significantly troubled students with each other and the state.
Edwards discussed other safety plans with the School Board, but that session was closed to the public. He said Florida law exempts discussions pertaining to security vulnerabilities from public meetings and public records rules.