SEBRING — The discovery by law enforcement of a student with a loaded handgun at Lake Placid Middle School last week has prompted comments from the public on the need for metal detectors in schools.

Some of the challenges with metal detectors in schools were noted in a letter that Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie sent to parents before the start of the 2018-19 school year when plans were scrapped to install metal detectors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, according to a Sun Sentinel report.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was the scene of a mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018 where 17 students and staff members were killed by a single gunman.

“As we continue our due diligence to implement the program — consulting with vendors and experts and reviewing turnkey solutions — many issues have been raised that require the District to pause and have a more thoughtful discussion on policy and procedural aspects of this pilot,” Runcie wrote.

The issues include how to get 3,300 students through the school at the same time, how to staff them, what kind of equipment is needed, how to protect student privacy and what limitations the devices may have, the letter states.

Highlands Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge acknowledged that metal detectors in schools is a “hot topic” and often comes up in conversation as a ‘quick fix’ solution. Rarely do such solutions exist for very complex problems.

“With all situations though, it is important to keep an open mind,” Lethbridge said. “I would say my position has not changed on this topic, but that is not to say that it is not constantly evaluated.”

In all of the safety trainings that he has been involved with, there has not been one that advocated metal detectors should be a consideration for the district, Lethbridge said.

Metal detectors typically work in environments in which there is a single entry and exit from an area, both of which are constantly monitored to make sure that unauthorized access occurs, he noted. For the vast majority of the district’s campuses, this is impossible.

The district has two campuses (Kindergarten Learning Center and Memorial Elementary School) in which this design may be possible, Lethbridge said.

In the case of the courthouse, or an airport, to gain entry to the building, one must go through that single entry. The airport runs 24/7 with personnel assigned to that task, Lethbridge noted. The courthouse doors are locked and no public access is permitted once the process ends.

“For our schools, we would either then need for all of our students to go through the one checkpoint, or set up multiple checkpoints, which would require more equipment and personnel,” he said. It would need to run all day, throughout the day, into the evening.

Even at night, an individual could stash a bag on campus to circumvent a metal detector process on an open campus, Lethbridge said.

“On this topic, and dealing with our open campuses, I defer to the experts in law enforcement and the school security field,” he said. From listening and participating in discussions on metal detectors in open campuses, it is not an effective tool. From a logistical standpoint, the metal detector would be very problematic and overall ineffective.

The most effective safety measure according to the experts is “relationships,” Lethbridge said.

More school shootings and tragedies has been avoided by students paying attention, hearing something, and sharing it with the appropriate adult who can do something about it, he said. Many times we never hear about these stories because it does not hit the nightly news.

In this latest incident at Lake Placid Middle School, the concept of students hearing something and saying something played a key role in administration and law enforcement handling the situation, Lethbridge noted. Seeing or hearing something, and then sharing it with the right adult is key. Refraining from spreading rumors to friends that cannot help the situation is also as important.

The district is constantly evaluating its safety practices, and its positions can evolve over time, he said.

“I truly believe community and parent input is extremely important,” Lethbridge said. This is why Superintendent Brenda Longshore has had safety forums throughout Highlands County. Input from those with varying perspectives helps everyone think deeply on the issues.

“As a father of four, three of which still attend schools in our district, safety is very personal to me,” he said. “The superintendent’s and School Board members’ priority is the safety of our students and staff. They are very supportive and involved on safety topics. We continue to strive for well thought out solutions for these complex issues.”

School Board Member Jan Shoop said, “I would hate to see metal detectors for many reasons, but this may be the world we are living in. I agree there are a lot of issues and costs that need to be discussed if we would move in that direction. I want to do everything possible to keep our children and schools safe.”

School Board Vice Chair Donna Howerton said she would put the question on metal detectors to the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office in what would make the county’s schools the safest.

“We are talking about having access to our schools with one entrance and possible guards at those entrances,” she said. The Sheriff’s Office has been helpful in looking at all of the schools and making recommendations.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, the percentages of public schools reporting the use of various safety and security measures tended to be higher in 2015-16 than in prior years. For example, the percentage of public schools reporting the use of security cameras increased from 19% in 1999-2000 to 81% in 2015-16, and the percentage of public schools reporting that they controlled access to school buildings increased from 75% to 94% during this time.

Conversely, the percentage of schools that reported using random metal detector checks decreased from 7% in 1999–2000 to 4% in 2015–16.

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