Are weapon detectors in schools worth the investment? Do they make students more or less safe? Are they effective?
In New Mexico, two of the state’s largest districts have different answers to those questions.
At Cleveland High School this school year, Rio Rancho Public Schools set up weapon detectors, built by the Massachusetts-based security company Evolv Technologies, that use artificial intelligence, electromagnetic fields and other sensors to detect concealed weapons.
The move, RRPS Executive Director of Safety and Security Sal Maniaci told the Journal, was intended as a proactive measure.
“We try to employ multiple layers of safety and security, and we thought this was an ideal product to look into,” he said. “A lot of what we do, unfortunately, tends to be reactive. We wanted something that was … proactive — (that’s) going to keep the dangerous (items) from getting in the school in the first place.”
Rio Rancho only saw a few guns brought onto campuses during the last school year, Maniaci said — two in parking lots, and one on a student.
But “one gun is more than what we should ever have,” he said. “The fact is, we know they exist. And we’re not naive to think that we don’t have weapons in our schools. And we just feel like it’s our responsibility to make sure we do everything we can to keep them from coming in.”
On the other hand, the district’s much-larger neighbor, Albuquerque Public Schools — along with one of its charter schools — saw almost six times that number, with at least 17 guns.
But so far, APS has chosen not to set up such weapon detection systems in its roughly 50 traditional middle and high schools. Its chief operations officer, Gabriella Blakey, last week told the Journal that’s because whether the detectors would actually help is not so clear cut.
“Just looking at the mental health of our kids, there’s mixed reviews on detectors making them feel more comfortable or less comfortable,” Blakey said. “We have to be really cognizant of that, because that comes first … making sure that our kids feel safe at school.”
She added, “In some ways, you could be making them feel less safe at school.”
APS has toyed with the idea of implementing several different weapon detection systems — even test-driving an Evolv machine at the district’s headquarters earlier this year.
But ultimately, the district sided against it. Another part of the reason for that, APS officials say, is because they may not be as effective as they seem.
Blakey, on the one hand, argued weapon detectors could foster a “false sense of security” on campuses, pointing out there can be many different access points to a school and that such detectors could lower the guards of people in them when, really, students may still be able to sneak weapons in.
Maniaci did not speak to that concern. But accounting for multiple points of entry into a school campus did factor into his district’s decision not to install Evolv machines at Rio Rancho High School, he said, pointing out the openness of that school’s campus means the district would have to make some design improvements before weapon detectors are an option.
There may still be more machines to come in two to three schools, Maniaci said, adding the district doesn’t know yet which those may be.
For APS, there’s also a question of costs and benefits.
In the wake of national tragedies like mass-casualty school shootings, Capital Master Plan Executive Director Kizito Wijenje pointed out that outside vendors will sometimes swoop in to pitch “millions of dollars of stuff,” which can lead to school districts making impulsive spending decisions — including on gunshot detection equipment — that ultimately aren’t useful.
“We don’t just willy-nilly go and buy the best and the brightest and the shiny objects in security every time there’s a school shooting,” he said. “It’s been very carefully thought through and continues to be carefully thought through in terms of integrating with what we do but at the same time keeping schools safe and keeping an environment that is not prison-like for our schools.”
To be clear, Blakey said the district never posted requests for proposals on any of the weapon detection systems they looked at or asked for a quote on price. When asked if their price tags swayed that decision, she said in a written response that APS “didn’t get to cost as a factor.”
This fiscal year, the machines will cost RRPS almost $131,000. The district has a three-year contract with Evolv.
To the concern that further fortifying schools may add to the unease of walking into them, Maniaci said he “(wants) our kids to feel like they come to school to learn, and I certainly don’t want it to ever look like a correctional environment.”
He said the district struck a balance between a comforting, welcoming environment for learning and keeping people safe. Although the machines have only been in place for less than a week, he said he’s so far heard only positive feedback from students, their families and school staff.
“Nobody’s called to complain about it, nobody’s called with concerns,” he said. “I think the community was ready for this kind of technology.”
Metal detectors also need people to operate them — a resource APS doesn’t exactly have in spades. Last week, the district told the Journal the APS police department was down almost a dozen officers and almost 60 campus security aides.
Implementing detectors in just some schools, like those that have seen more guns on campus, is also not an option, Blakey said, because the district doesn’t want to single out certain schools as the ones with metal detectors.
Blakey argued there needs to be a balance between being reactive and proactive, a term she used differently than Maniaci did.
For her, being proactive is about the support schools have in place for students. One example of that in APS that officials have cited is its implementation of Albuquerque’s Violence Intervention Program at West Mesa High School, aimed at helping students in danger of getting sucked into cycles of gun violence before something tragic happens.
“There’s a need for both,” Blakey said. “But the more we can push on the proactive — then we can lift from the reactive.”