Do Metal Detectors Work?

My son travels the country assisting me during demonstrations by concealing rifles, shotguns, machetes, hand grenades and a wide array of other weapons on his person. During these demonstrations, I point out how, by paying careful attention, you can detect these weapons. Our exaggerated demonstration is designed to heighten the awareness of school officials. It is estimated that only one of the 4,500 guns that are carried to school in our nation is recovered. It is clear that we can do a better job of preventing and detecting weapons violations in our schools.

Some schools have tried to find a quick fix to the problem by using metal detectors. Sometimes, these efforts end in failure, because of a lack of familiarity with today’s high-tech weapons detection equipment. When used appropriately with other preventive measures, metal detectors have helped reduce student weapons violations by as much as 90 percent.

First of all, it is important to understand that metal detectors must be viewed as a single component of a comprehensive strategy. Emotional security needs are as important as physical security needs. For a school weapons assault to take place, two factors must be present: the presence of a weapon on school property — a gun, a knife, a bomb, a chair or a pencil — and the desire for an individual to use that weapon to injure another human being. Weapons screening programs address only half of this deadly equation. There is also a need to change the students’ perception that they need to carry a weapon.

Most people immediately think of airport- or courthouse-style metal detection when the discussion turns to screening equipment for schools. In reality, this approach is rarely feasible for schools. Entry-point metal detection requires intensive use of resources. A few of the common problems that must be addressed for effective entry-point weapons screening include:

    • adequate staffing to screen students effectively without backlog;

    • a secure perimeter — so a student cannot simply put a gun on a window ledge and retrieve it after being screened;

    • an armed officer present at the screening station so offenders cannot simply shoot their way through the checkpoint; and

    • screening of all persons who enter the facility after hours, so a weapon cannot be hidden inside the building to be retrieved later.

The fiscal resources required to maintain an entry-point screening program that cannot be easily defeated by an intelligent middle school student can be significant. This type of screening is typically best suited for alternative school programs located in smaller facilities, where it is easier to address many of the above concerns.

For most schools, a random weapons screening program is a far more effective and reasonable option. For example, a school administrator draws classroom or school bus numbers from a container, and all students in the selected area are screened by a team of properly trained personnel. This method has proven to be very effective, while being less intrusive to the students than entry-point screening.

The effectiveness of random screening lies in its value as a deterrent. Potential violators never know when they will be screened for weapons. They also have less opportunity to figure out how to“beat the system.” Random screening also eliminates most of the easily exploited gaps present with entry-point detection.

In addition, students do not face the inconvenience of being subjected to weapons screening on a daily basis. A typical student may be checked once or twice each year, rather than once every day. Random screening also eliminates the need for students to arrive early each day to allow time for screening. As long as personnel are polite, professional and treat students with respect, random screening programs are normally well received by students. To help create a positive attitude, it is highly recommended that students be a part of the team that develops the screening program.

Of course, guidance of legal counsel must be incorporated into the development of the policies and procedures for the screening program. Some school board attorneys may need to consult with a specialist if they are not familiar with this unique area of school search and seizure law. When properly conducted, random screening programs have been upheld by the courts for more than a decade.

A final benefit of a random screening program is that it is much less expensive than entry-point screening. Money saved through random screening can be used to develop or enhance emotional security efforts, such as peer mediation and bullying-reduction programs.

Also remember that an informed public is far more likely to support a weapons screening program. When parents and students know the dangers that are being addressed in a comprehensive manner, they tend to be supportive. By working with parents and students, you may find that metal detection equipment can help to make your school a safer place.

Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Office of the Governor — Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is one of the nation’s top school safety experts. His next book, School/Law Enforcement Partnerships: A Guide to Police Work in Schools, is due for publication this summer.

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