Schools as Fortresses

WALKING through metal detectors - a routine activity for air travelers - could become a daily event for students in 50 New York City high schools. In the wake of a shooting that wounded a student in Brooklyn this month, Ramon Cortines, the schools chancellor, is asking the Board of Education to approve the $1 million expenditure.

At a time of increasing violence in public schools, administrators must do whatever is necessary to protect students. Even so, a million-dollar weapons-detection system aptly symbolizes the ways in which the problems of the larger world invade the classroom, diverting education money from academic purposes.

If New York's Board of Education approves the metal detectors, the money will come from funds earmarked for school construction and maintenance. That raises an intriguing question: What else could $1 million buy to meet basic classroom needs and improve education? At $30 a textbook, $1 million could buy more than 33,000 books for students. Or it could pay the salaries of 25 teachers earning $40,000 each.

By coincidence, the same week that the request for metal detectors was announced, a leading business organization, the Committee for Economic Development, called for greater emphasis on academics. Employers, the group stated, find that ``a large majority of their new hires lack adequate writing and problem-solving skills.'' To improve those skills, the report said, schools must move away from providing social programs such as pregnancy counseling and AIDS information. ``Currently, communities, states, and the national government are asking those who manage our classrooms to be parent, social worker, doctor, psychologist, police officer, and perhaps, if there is time, teacher,'' the report says.

In urging teachers to return to their primary business - education - the report outlines an oft-stated ideal that may not be possible in an age of social turmoil and changing families. Schools have become crisis centers - a kind of 911 line where everyone turns when all else fails. They cannot withdraw certain forms of assistance without first being sure that students' needs will be met elsewhere.

But defining - again - the purpose of schools helps define everybody else's job too. The report serves as a reminder that parents, not schools, must be the primary caretakers of students and the primary shapers of their social and moral development.

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