Gardena High shooting raises question: How to keep guns out of school?

The Los Angeles school district will review its security policies after the apparently accidental shooting of two students at Gardena High School. But experts are split on whether big-money projects like metal detectors and surveillance cameras are the way to go.

Jae C. Hong/AP
A police officer talks to a school bus driver as the bus arrives to pick up students at Gardena High School in Gardena, Calif., Tuesday, after reports of two students being wounded during a shooting.

In the wake of Tuesday’s school shooting at Gardena High Schooldeemed accidental but leading to the hospitalization of two 15-year-olds – parents and school officials are asking questions about how best to keep guns out of schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District – the nation’s second largest – says it is reviewing both its own policies and their enforcement by schools. The LAUSD has required random weapons searches since 1993 but has left the details to principals about where and when to conduct them, so they don’t become predictable. Police have arrested two more students, who were being held on suspicion of helping the boy bring the gun into the school .

Metal detectors at school entrances are one option, but educators and school-safety experts are split on their effectiveness, as well as the message they send to students. In some districts, they have worked. But others say the only real answer is vigilance, by teachers, parents, and other students.

“More than just machines with an uninvolved attendant standing in front of it, we need principals and parents and teachers and mentors who are engaged with the students all the time so when they have issues about safety, or isolation, we know about them,” says Teny Oded Gross, executive director at Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I.

'Communication is the key'

In news reports since the Gardena High School shooting, friends of the 17-year-old who carried the gun to school said he carried the gun for protection because of past run-ins with other students, but not with the intent of hurting anyone.

“Circumstances are changing for students all the time,” says Mr. Gross. “A gang member may be just getting out of prison and setting up new crews, and a perfectly nice kid feels vulnerable because of it."

"Metal detectors are an OK supplement if you have the money, but what is more important is adults on the ground knowing all the time what happened at the rec center and last night’s ball game," he adds. "Communication is the key. There are no quick fixes.”

Moreover, the money for metal detectors and surveillance cameras might come at the expense of educational programs. “Considering the current crisis in US education, it seems particularly important to ensure that education is not compromised in the name of preventing extremely rare instances of school violence that are nearly impossible to predict,” says Kelly Welch, a criminologist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Others agree.

“Fundamentally, thinking only about the dangerous kids might cause us to lose sight of the ones who are just there for an education,” says Joel Jacobsen, an assistant attorney general for the state of New Mexico. Metal detectors “are telling students that they are right to be frightened to be in their school. That can't be conducive to learning.”

For Philadelphia, metal detectors have worked

Yet for Harris Lewin, a regional superintendent in Philadelphia right after Columbine in 1999, the decision to go with metal detectors and security guards with scanning wands was not all negative. It was a tradeoff.

“I realize this does seem to send a negative message: that we are checking everyone just for the few aberrant ones, but that seems to be part of our world,” says Dr. Lewin, who is now director of graduate education at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It’s now like an airport with scanners and security guards, but we have not had an in-school event ever since.”

Lewin says his classroom management programs are moving away from a curriculum of physical control to get teachers, administrators, and staff to be more reflective and caring. “That’s our thinking at the moment,” he says.

For his part, New Mexico's Mr. Jacobsen suggests that metal detectors can only be as good as the guards who run them.

“Will the guards remain more loyal to the administration than to the students they see every day?” he asks. “We know that jail guards are frequently bribed or scared or seduced. Why wouldn't school guards be at least as susceptible?”

A Nebraska state senator has proposed allowing teachers to bring weapons to class to defend themselves. But others suggest that expansive gun rights are part of the problem.

“The [Supreme] Court’s current interpretation of the Second Amendment means that relatively few gun restrictions are permissible,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at LoyolaLaw School in Los Angeles.

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