Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Metal Detectors in the Campus Setting

Entry-point metal detection has been a hot topic this year. Having used metal detectors to screen large numbers of people in the campus setting, assisted clients in establishing metal detection programs, conducted penetration testing to evaluate how effectively they were being utilized, and having served as an expert witness on many shootings where questions about metal detection was an issue, I know that the use of metal detectors is more complicated than most people realize.

My experiences successfully smuggling hundreds of real and simulated weapons through poorly run weapons screening checkpoints also affords a different perspective. To be clear, properly designed and funded weapons screening programs can lower risks of violence in many settings. In my experience, however, I’ve found that most campus organizations are not willing to fund effective weapons screening programs and have typically been unwilling to allow the level of intrusiveness that reasonably effective weapons screening requires.

Actions to Consider

The following are a few—but far from the only—major considerations for a weapons screening program that is more than an easily defeated façade likely be used as “Exhibit A” during litigation and public scrutiny if a shooting occurs:

  • A defensible written policy developed with assistance of qualified legal counsel should be passed before screening is conducted.
  • Written cautions for the public to notify them that, while entry-point weapons screening programs can enhance security, they cannot ensure a weapons-free environment.
  • Adequate access control and perimeter security to prevent attackers from simply bypassing the checkpoint.
  • The use of security X-ray equipment by trained operators to screen purses, bookbags, and other hand-carried items. I have been able to get firearms past every manual bag checkpoint I have been asked to test.
  • As metal detectors detect metal rather than firearms, reasonably effective entry-point screening requires that limited physical pat downs be conducted.
  • Criteria for consequences of being caught with a weapon at checkpoints should be determined before weapons screening is conducted. For example, determine whether a person who is found to possess a pocketknife at a checkpoint will be arrested or not. It is very common for people attempting to enter schools, airports, courthouses, the U.S. Capitol, and other venues to be caught with firearms and a wide range of other weapons. It is surprisingly common for people to forget they have a knife in their pocket, a gun in their purse, briefcase, etc.
  • Staff who would conduct screenings need to be identified, vetted carefully, and properly trained.
  • It is prudent to install security cameras to document each stage of screening at every checkpoint in order to document activities. This can be especially important if a federal civil action alleging sexual misconduct by screening personnel arises.
  • A variety of building infrastructure challenges need to be addressed. For example, running power to walk-through metal detectors and X-ray equipment, and protecting the equipment from inclement weather.
  • Armed security for checkpoints and people waiting to be screened. If the threat level indicates the use of entry-point weapons screening, armed security for the checkpoint is usually indicated.
  • A fidelity testing process should be developed to test effectiveness. For example, selected students and visitors should be asked to conduct penetration testing using official test pieces (OTPs) that screeners have been trained to recognize. An OTP is a harmless piece of metal that simulates a small handgun or knife.
  • Finally, organizations that rely on any form of target hardening for specific venues should consider the vast number of attacks where attackers have simply worked around security measures by altering the attack method, weapon type, or location of the attack.

Having successfully utilized metal detectors to dramatically reduce weapons assaults in the campus setting, my experience has been that entry-point metal detection affords the most protection when staffing, equipment, and a wide array of supportive security strategies are adequately funded and implemented. Providing a façade of security with poorly run metal detection can result not only in litigation, but also erosion of public trust and, most importantly, the needless loss of life.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at