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Placing metal detectors in 4 Palm Beach high schools deemed a success. More to come

MediaLab@FAU

The new school year has brought an extra layer of security to four Palm Beach County high schools, as TSA-like metal detectors have now been placed outside the entrances of school grounds.

With more than a month of the new academic year complete, the feedback has been fairly positive.

“I haven’t heard anybody say anything bad about it,” said Sarah Mooney, Police Chief of the Palm Beach County School District. “It’s all been pretty positive from the students.”

With past tragedies such as the Parkland shooting in 2018 and last year’s shooting in Uvalde, TX., still fresh on many Americans’ minds, school safety remains a top priority in Palm Beach County, with metal detectors being the latest addition to otherwise common school safety measures such as having visible identification at all times.

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Mike Burke told reporters last week that metal detectors would be installed at all county high schools. "We've learned the devices are working very well [and] it is a deterrent to bringing anything on campus that shouldn't be there," he said.

After some bumps in the road with the early stages of the pilot program, which saw extremely long lines of students waiting to go through the metal detectors, the process has improved to become much more efficient and less time-consuming, according to Mooney.

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She said the idea of metal detectors on school campuses has been a topic of discussion among the community for years. This year, the county decided to launch a pilot program to see if the idea is feasible.

The initial concern by parents of students and staff members at schools was that the devices would be too intrusive and invade students’ right to privacy. However, as time has passed, Mooney said those concerns have started to fade after they saw the efficiency of the program.

Dr. Jesus Armas, Principal of John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, said that his school as well as others involved with the program are constantly collaborating with one another to see if they can learn something from each other when it comes to nailing down best practices.

“The great thing is that we are all willing to help each other out,” Armas said.

Two tall poles
Courtesy of Dr. Jesus Armas
Metal detectors at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres.

Armas described what the daily process of students walking through metal detectors entails.

“We don’t ask students to empty their pockets,” Armas said. “There are some items that we know are going to set it off. We know that all the Chromebooks that the kids have will set them off, so the procedure requires them to take their Chromebook or laptop out of their bag, put it on a table, slide it over, and then go through the metal detector.

“If it doesn’t go off, we’re not even going in your book bag. Even when we do go in [the student’s] book bag, we’re only going in that main pocket. So we believe the system is unintrusive and certainly does not invade the students’ personal space.”

Mooney said that the initial plan was to only test the new technology at John I. Leonard High School, before three additional schools volunteered to participate as well. Those three other schools are Seminole Ridge Community High School, Palm Beach Lakes Community High School and Palm Beach Gardens Community High School.

Armas said that Chief Mooney and the other schools involved set up a weekly meeting to discuss how things have progressed with the program. For John I. Leonard High School, Armas viewed the program as successful so far thanks in large part to “zero defiance” from the students and indicated that no weapons have been discovered on his campus through the metal detectors since they were brought in.

Armas said that he once held the opposite viewpoint of metal detectors and thought they would be unnecessary to have on a school campus.

“I felt that the technology wasn’t right and really, frankly at the time, it wasn’t something as a society we really wanted,” Armas said.

However, he said that with the advances in security technology to prevent intrusiveness throughout the years, he has had a change of heart on the matter and thinks now is a good time to have them in place.

“In the last couple of years, with the new better technology and with the fact that now everywhere you go, whether it’s a ballgame or a concert, or the Kravis Center, or the South Florida Fair, everywhere you go you’re going through metal detectors,” Armas said.

“I believed that society now sees it as something that can be the norm.”

Armas also acknowledged the importance of other safety measures being in place along with metal detectors.

“In my mind, a school is safer with the metal detectors than without,” Armas said. “Having said that, if metal detectors were the only thing we did for safety, then that wouldn’t be good enough.”

Current high school students who have to walk through the metal detectors each school day weighed in on the pilot program as well.

Kaitlyn Clarke, a senior at Seminole Ridge Community High School, supports the idea of metal detectors being implemented at more schools, and said that the devices “minimize the risk of school shootings.”

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However, she revealed a troubling issue with her school’s management of the devices.

“They don’t always have the metal detectors out there, it’s very wishy washy,” Clarke said. “Some mornings they’ll have two metal detectors, other mornings they’ll have none.

“Even if these metal detectors are out there some days, these kids could be keeping whatever [prohibited items] they have in their car until the day that they don’t have to go through the metal detector, and that’s when they bring it in their backpack and into the school.”

Clarke added that to her, metal detectors are “really crucial” to enhancing school safety, which reinforces her concern about the lack of consistency surrounding the presence of the metal detectors on campus.

Nevertheless, she still came to the program’s defense, and said that any inconvenience that her fellow classmates may encounter is minor and does not outweigh the benefits of the devices.

Despite the viewpoint from some that metal detectors are just an additional layer of security, some students who have already graduated still see them as a major difference maker when it comes to school safety. Mario Peguero, 19, graduated from Seminole Ridge High in 2022, and said he supported the changes at his former school.

“For sure I would’ve felt safer going to school knowing how metal detectors would lower the chance of anything bad happening,” Peguero said.

While he personally never felt unsafe during his time at Seminole Ridge, he added, it is important for students to not let their guard down, and that metal detectors will reduce the chances of students attempting to bring in prohibited items on campus.

“Putting metal detectors [on school campuses] obviously reduces the chances of kids bringing anything they’re not supposed to, but it’s also costly, and can also be disruptive,” Peguero said. “Knowing how slow the process of going through metal detectors is, these kids, instead of getting to class at 7:30, can get pushed back 30 minutes and take away from their breakfast and learning.”

To combat this concern, Armas said that his school opens its doors at 6:45 a.m. instead of 7:00 a.m as was the case before the metal detectors, and insisted that this change ensures every student makes it to class on time and that the new security is not to blame for tardy students.

“The truth of the matter is, if students are late, it is not because they are going through those metal detectors,” Armas said. “If they’re late, it’s because they’re pulling up to the curb late.”

Clarke shared this viewpoint about other students as well.

“They’ll sit in their cars until just before the bell rings, and then they are late because they have to go through the metal detector,” Clarke said.

Clarke mentioned that when the school year first began, it was justifiable to blame long lines for most tardy students at Seminole Ridge, as they started out with just one metal detector at the school’s gates, which, according to her, caused many students to be as much as 20 minutes late to class. But she added that now with a second metal detector in place, it is mostly the students’ responsibility to make it to class on time.

Having metal detectors on school campuses is a massive change from what many are used to. Armas, who has worked in the county school district for over two decades, acknowledged that this new security layer is unprecedented territory that could not have been predicted several years ago, and is going to take some getting used to.

“The only thing I’ve predicted accurately in all my years is that I would lose my hair and it would turn grey,” Armas said. “There’s no way that when I became a principal 18 years ago we could predict where we are now. It’s a different world.”

As for whether or not this security system will be expanded to county elementary and middle schools in the near future, Mooney painted a slightly grim picture.

“I think that would be a ways down the road,” Mooney said. “Just on the supply chain and trying to get all that equipment in and training that many staff members, and especially with little kids. If you do it in an elementary school, the time constraints might be a little different than a high school where you can direct a little bit better.”

However, when it comes to all public high schools county-wide, expansion is certainly on the horizon, and could even occur before the end of the school year, according to Mooney.

Ultimately, she said those decisions will be made in conjunction with the Palm Beach County School District Board.

This story was produced by MediaLab@FAU, a project of Florida Atlantic University School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, in partnership with WLRN. The reporter can be reached at dbacker2022@fau.edu.

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