6 Reasons Metal Detectors Aren’t Practical for Most Higher Education Campuses

The number of metal detectors and screeners needed for a full screen of students is logistically nearly impossible and a cost-prohibitive task.
Published: July 14, 2023

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

In the United States, the use of metal detectors in K-12 schools is rising. In March 2022, the superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, where the 2018 Parkland shooting took place, announced that in public schools, students and their belongings will be screened with handheld metal detectors in randomly selected classrooms. Later that year, the Volusia County (Fla.) School District announced it is ordering walk-through metal detectors for high schools.

In light of several recent violent incidents resulting in university students’ death, the discussion of implementing metal detection programs reemerged. Though metal detector use is a familiar process, the implementation of such programs on higher education campuses is highly challenging, if not practically impossible.

Higher education campuses vary greatly, as do K-12 schools. In most cases, higher ed campuses differ from K-12 schools in several key parameters, including student age and level of maturity, campus/school design, layout and purpose, on-campus activities, and the level by which the “community welcoming philosophy” is implemented. Under these circumstances, a higher ed pragmatic and effective metal detector screening program is highly challenging for the following reasons:

——Article Continues Below——

Get the latest industry news and research delivered directly to your inbox.
  1. In general terms, a metal detector program in any educational facility must have defined goals and objectives that correlate with the institution’s purpose and values. Due to the older, more mature and critical population base in higher education, universities and colleges must clearly outline what it is they are trying to achieve by implementing metal detector screening in terms of program longevity, its totality, and desired results. If the commonly stated goal of the program is along the lines of “the detection of guns and other weapons to mitigate the threat of violence,” then the following consideration need to be deliberated:
    • A: To implement a metal detector program, the campus design and layout must support a physical parameter between “screened” and “unscreened,” or what is commonly referred to as a post-screened “sterile area.” A physical barrier concept dictates that all exits and entries must be eliminated or supervised. In addition, there must be no open windows, fences, or walls that can be climbed or have something tossed over. In other words, a metal detection program is inherently contradictive to the “open and welcoming” higher education philosophy and physical design.
    • B: With metal detection programs being an anomaly in current higher education campuses, for foreign students and some local students and employees, a campus metal detector screening might be viewed as an unacceptable invasion of privacy or an indication of an active threat or a high-risk environment. Utilizing metal detectors thus might deter prospective students or alarm members of the campus community.
  2. Pragmatically speaking, some weapons are not detectable by metal detectors. For example, readily available ceramic knives are non-detectable by metal detectors. Other weapons and devices have a very limited metal signature and might go unnoticed by screeners. Therefore, campuses must be willing to accept that they are putting in place a restrictive program that is inherently limited in its results. From a technical perspective, metal detector calibration, considering the electronic devices and metal objects many students carry, can either make the system penetrable or create significant delays due to screeners’ secondary checks and the opening of student backpacks. In theory, in a school of 2,500 students and an imaginary (!) rate of thirty seconds per student, for an entire personnel screening, it would require 1,250 minutes or nearly 21 hours of screening under the most optimal conditions. The number of metal detectors and screeners needed for a full “sterile area” screen of students and their belongings — let alone employees, guests, contractors, vehicles and more — is logistically nearly impossible and a cost-prohibitive task.
  3. Strategically, as an alternative approach to full screening, random, sporadic or selective metal detector screens or “risk-based” screens can be utilized as a mostly deterrent measure. With a lack of full transparency, these types of screens have the potential of exposing the campus to liability claims based on perceived discrimination. Moreover, unlike gate-type metal detectors, handheld metal detectors are more personal and can expose the campus to sexual harassment claims. Additionally, partial metal detector screening and partial population screening can also expose the school to “false sense of security” claims and diminish the trust of the school population in its management and its perceived level of care and ownership of school safety.
  4. Considering that some students in higher education are minors, privacy must remain a top consideration. Screening minors, questioning minors, touching minors, or discussing items in their possession, including medication, in a public setting are additional hurdles a metal detection initiative must address.
  5. When screening students and their possessions, the school should anticipate the detection of non-weapon contraband and have a clear contingent policy.
  6. As seen in previous airport attacks, creating an exposed, prescreening bottleneck in essence generates a target-rich environment. Ironically, bad metal detector positioning can thus make it easier for an active shooter to execute a mass casualty event.

In the past few years, we have seen different school districts implement various models of metal detector screenings before or after a major crisis. Whereas K-12 students might be perceived as more obedient or gullible (they are most certainly not), implementing a metal detector program in higher education encounters structural, cultural, operational and legal challenges that effectively question the entire logic of such a program. By the time one addresses all the aforementioned considerations, very few schools, if any, are capable of effectively utilizing metal detectors for anything other than a short term, limited, risk deterrence focused approach.

If individuals in the higher education system want the appearance of being safety driven, or if politicians are promoting such an agenda, it would be wise for higher education institutions to clearly define their objectives and then review more cost-effective, data-based, and evidence-driven holistic measures prior to conceding to this flawed notion.

Oren Alter oversees crisis management, business continuity, safety and security for 30 Higher Education campuses in the Southeast United States. He is a security expert with over 30 years of experience, including the Israeli Special Forces, the Israeli Security Agency, Corporate Security for an international multi-billion-dollar global company and Higher Education.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series