Schools forgo metal detectors

Districts stress preventing violence

January 4, 2007 

Students leave Foss High School after Tacoma police and school district officials lifted a lockdown Wednesday morning following a student’s fatal shooting.


Tacoma’s Foss High School didn’t have a walk-through metal detector that might have caught the handgun used to shoot to death a 17-year-old Foss student Wednesday.

But neither do other Tacoma schools or, for that matter, most schools in the state.

Asked whether the district will consider installing metal detectors after Wednesday’s shooting, Tacoma schools Superintendent Charlie Milligan said, “I think we’ll look at everything.”

Tacoma spokeswoman Patti Holmgren said the district tried using hand-held metal detectors as a pilot effort in 1993, but it wasn’t feasible to use them.

Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said it’s hard to tell whether a metal detector could have prevented the shooting at Foss. “It may or may not,” he said. “I believe if someone is determined to get into a school or public place and they have the determination and drive to do that, they can probably do that.”

Craig Apperson, supervisor of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s safety and security program, said he doesn’t know of any schools in the state that regularly use airport-style walk-through detectors, except for sporting events. It’s more common to use the hand-carried wands that detect metal.

The Seattle School District, for instance, uses the handheld detectors on occasion in individual schools, and has a couple of the larger portable detectors that also can be used at special events, said district spokeswoman Patti Spencer.

Besides buying and maintaining the metal detectors, there’s the expense of hiring security personnel to staff walk-through stations. Many educators prefer to spend their limited dollars on preventive efforts such as school resource officers or staff who help students resolve conflicts, said Gary Kipp, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals.

“Metal detectors would be a way to prevent metal from getting into the building, but there are lots of ways for kids to hurt each other that have nothing to do with metal,” he said. “Getting at the root cause of conflicts seems to be the way most educators would go when there are limited resources.”

Milligan said he has asked Police Chief Ramsdell to provide “a couple” of uniformed officers at each of the district’s high schools after Wednesday’s shooting. The district already employs its own campus security officers, and Mount Tahoma and Lincoln high schools hire off-duty, uniformed Tacoma police officers to work at the schools.

Milligan and Ramsdell said they’ll meet Friday to discuss security needs at the high schools. Ramsdell added that he also will ask the department’s community liaison officers to work with schools on specific needs.

“We can never do enough,” Milligan said, “but we’ll do all we can.”

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