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How effective are school metal detectors?

Talks of installing metal detectors in schools have resurfaced after the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School killed 10 people and injured 13 others

Every morning in Aldine ISD, students at every intermediate, middle and high school go through the same routine: remove coats, set aside cell phones and hand over purses and bags to be checked by school staff.

It’s like going to a concert or big-league game.

Walking through metal detectors has been the norm for years at Aldine ISD.

“I believe the kids understand the reason why we’re doing it,” said Ken Knippel, the district’s assistant superintendent for administration. “They’re effective. Period.”

Talks of installing metal detectors in schools have resurfaced after the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School killed 10 people and injured 13 others.

A KHOU 11 analysis of the 20 largest independent school districts in the Houston area found only two use metal detectors in their traditional schools. (Many districts use metal detectors at their alternative school campuses, but those were not part of the KHOU 11 analysis.)

Aldine ISD completed installation of more than 200 metal detectors district-wide around the 2009-2010 school year. The district spends about $4,500 for each device.

Before then, the district averaged nearly 12 weapons incidents every year.

Afterwards, an average of just 2.3 illegal weapon incidents were recorded each year.

“We looked at our data, we wanted to resolve a problem that we saw and this was our approach,” Knippel said.

Spring ISD took the same approach after the 2013 fatal stabbing of a Spring High School student. All the district’s high schools are now equipped with metal detectors. The district spends about $2,900 per machine.

“For us in Spring ISD, it has worked; the metal detectors are a deterrent,” said Dr. Lupita Hinojosa, chief of school leadership and student support services.

Before metal detectors were installed, the district averaged nearly 20 weapons incidents per year.

That average dropped to nine per year after installation. Spring ISD also saw a significant drop in weapons incidents the past two school years.

In the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced $120 million in potential funding to protect our kids. That could include the purchase of metal detectors, according to the a 44-page safety action plan report released by Abbott.

But some researchers say it’s not the best way to spend the money.

“It’s not something that’s a strategy that we recommend,” said Dr. Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

The University of Colorado Boulder-based group has studied school shootings since Columbine.

“We need to be addressing the root causes of violence and if we don’t do that, we aren’t addressing the real issue,” Kingston said.

She points to the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado and all the warning signs about the gunman that went ignored.

“There were 27 missed opportunities to intervene with the shooter in that situation,” Kingston said.

She said metal detectors do just that—detect a metal knife or gun. But they can’t assess behavior or underlying mental health issues.

More: Parents considering school boycott if security isn't improved

“I would totally agree with that position,” Spring ISD’s Hinojosa said.

At Spring ISD, she said metal detectors are only one piece of the school safety puzzle.

“It’s more about relationship building with our students,” she said. “If they feel connected, they’re more prone to reach out when something is worrying them.

Educators at both Spring and Aldine ISDs said that relationship building can happen every morning in the metal detector line.

“It’s just a good way to get a feel for the kids as they’re coming in,” Knippel said. “It’s about layers of security, so it’s not the answer, but it certainly for us has been part of the answer.”

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