Metal Detectors, Higher Walls Won’t Make Our Kids Safer

Annie Harper (pictured) is an urban anthropologist from Yale and a New Haven mom of three public schoolchildren.

As we digest the news of the tragic event in Newtown, many have responded with concern and anger about the lack of security in our schools. I have, respectfully, to disagree with them.  The young man who committed the murders used his weapon to smash his way through the doors of the school, and proceeded immediately to begin to kill. No amount of metal detectors or locked doors would have stopped him from what he did. Nor will such ‘security’ measures serve to prevent other tragedies of this kind. 

The ‘in-favor-of-guns-everywhere’ lobby may be right that had the school principal been armed in this case, lives would have been saved (though one wonders what type of weapon that principal would have had to wield against the gun the young man had and with what level of expertise). It is simply idiocy, however, to imagine that the overall effect of arming school staff would be safer schools for our children.

I understand the gut response to make our schools safer by beefing up security. As the tragedy unfolded in Newton my own six-year old son was sitting in his first grade classroom barely 25 miles away. Part of me wants simply to protect him, to build ever higher and stronger walls around his precious little body to keep it from harm. 

I am convinced however, that not only are efforts to make schools more secure in this way futile, they are also counter-productive.  They are like a band-aid for a wound that stems the flow of blood, but allows and even encourages the infection to fester beneath. Building ever-higher walls, creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, perpetuates and exacerbates the conditions that foster this type of murderous behavior, the multiple factors that coalesce and culminate in such tragedies.  As we focus on protecting ourselves, we lose sight of the root causes of our insecurity.

Those root causes are multiple and complex, but not so complex that we can’t identify them and address them.  They include easy access to easy-to-kill-with guns, a national norm that measures strength in terms of numbers and sophistication of weaponry, an underfunded mental health care system that cannot cope with the scale of those who suffer mental illness, a culture that promotes individual success over community well-being, and that measures success in terms of power and fame, rather than positive impact on wider society.

Focusing on building higher walls or tighter security systems around our schools and homes encourages us to seek strength in weapons, to distance ourselves from those whose suffering we need to understand and address before it bursts out in a fury borne of isolation and paranoia, to turn inwards to our ‘own people,’ fearing those who seem different … and so the cycle continues.

Now is the time to pull together our resources to solve these problems, to begin to take steps towards real change.  If we want our schools to be more secure, talk of metal detectors and tighter security risks distracting us from the real task at hand.

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posted by: Patrice on December 17, 2012  2:14pm

Very insightful. On a concrete “what could we do now” level, I would like to know that all NHPS classrooms have lockable doors. With all respect, hiding in a room with a door unlocked is like crouching under a desk and waiting for an atomic bomb to drop. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of us. Thank you for this article.

posted by: westville man on December 17, 2012  2:15pm

This does not appear to be someone who was affected by the “under-funded mental health care system”.  He was from an affluent family. Any real solutions will be complex and difficult.

posted by: robn on December 17, 2012  2:38pm

Until we’ve succeeded with curing mental illness and making and anger free society, can we have better security at our schools and maybe be more selective about who we sell what weapons to?

posted by: Brutus2011 on December 17, 2012  2:45pm

The classrooms I have had in NHPS all had doors with locks and there was protocol in place for emergency lock-down.

I think New Haven K-8 schools are as safe as probably can be in that regard.

I don’t know though what can really be done to counter an imminent threat such as what went down in Sandy Hook.

I have often thought that a plainclothes special sheriff’s department should be assigned to our schools—for internal as well as external threats to learning and physical safety.

I may be wrong, but it seems like a rational response to the times we live in.

posted by: westville man on December 17, 2012  3:39pm

Brutus,  Just to be clear- I have walked into Edgewood Elementary many times and have never been stopped or even asked anything and i have no children there.  Perhaps that will change now.

posted by: Max Simmons on December 17, 2012  5:16pm

No one thing will “solve” the problem of school shootings. Gun control alone won’t solve it. Behavioral healthcare and intervention improvements alone won’t solve it. Armed security officers or other staff alone won’t solve it. Hardened entrances, security cameras, electronic locks, etc., won’t solve it. But I don’t see any reasonable basis to believe that any one of these things would at least help and, together, might actually reduce the incidences of school shootings dramatically. Put everything on the table, and think in terms of combinations of tactics.

posted by: Patrice on December 17, 2012  6:52pm

We must all take responsibility for our society. A society that helped create a young man, who irrationally felt that his anger, confusion, and sadness could be appropriately expressed through his tragic actions. A young man that was obviously living with a burden he alone could not carry. We really need to take a better look at each other. We need to reach out to each other. We need to listen more and speak less. Turn off the news. Spend time with family and friends. Militarizing schools and developing a culture of fear will not prevent future tragedies. On the contrary, a discussion that involves arming teachers and staff, fortifying school buildings, and screening visitors is only going to encourage the small, very small percentage of people who would act out the unthinkable.
We are all responsible and we all need a big hug right now! Lets stop being so reactive and open our arms to each other.

posted by: owlmanatt on December 18, 2012  12:15am

There is only way one to prevent this type of attack: vastly reduce the number of guns in America.

The gunman used stolen weapons in his shooting spree. If he hadn’t stolen them from his mother, he could have just as easily stolen them from another gun owner/retailer, or perhaps purchased them from a less-than-legitimate source (I mean, christ, with the amount of money him & mom were getting from the ex-husband it’s not like he couldn’t afford it).

No amount of gun control legislation short of repealing the second amendment and spending the next sixty years finding and destroying American firearms can prevent this. No amount of passive security measures (metal detectors, locks, etc) will stop a gunman willing to exchange his own life for his target’s can mitigate this either.

Sorry if I sound kind of doom and gloom, but I’m so tired of having this discussion after every spree shooting. Live security or widespread disarmament are the only ways to ‘plan’ for a nutter on a shooting spree.

posted by: hart1 on December 18, 2012  2:45pm

Cut to the chase: the issue is guns. Get rid of guns and even a “normal” who snaps would not be able to do the damage done Friday. Further, a mentally ill person also could not have produced the carnage of Friday without access to automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

posted by: OhHum on December 18, 2012  4:02pm

The best estimate is that there are 300 million firearms in America. If taken care of properly they will be operable a century from now. Most will sit in homes and never be fired, saved as some kind of collectable. Others will be used for hunting, target practice and shooting competitions. A very small amount of firearms will be used to commit homicides. No amount is acceptable. We have laws against owning illegal firearms. They don’t appear to work. We have gun free zones, laws that tell us where and when we can carry guns.Most of us obey them. A very few don’t. I’d venture to guess that if we repealed the 2nd amendment and outlawed guns in America there would still be homicides with firearms. There is something terribly wrong with the fabric of America and that is what has to be looked at right now. Why are we bringing this mayhem upon ourselves. Are we broken and can’t be fixed? I don’t believe so. However, we truly need to find the source(s) of the problem(s) and work on them. Fast. We have National Commissions for everything else. Why not this? Perhaps in the meantime we ban “assault style” weapons and large capacity clips. Harden schools with better doors and safe rooms for students, etc. Require the same types of checks at gun shows that there are for states like CT. Will this help to stop the killing? I think you all know the answer. And it will be different for all of us.

posted by: gunsarenttheproblem on December 18, 2012  5:45pm

Sorry, guns aren’t the issue we have some 270 million firearms in the USA, if guns were the problem we would have more gun homicides not less over the last 20 years. The problem is mental health and what happens to push these people over the edge. Punishing law abiding gun owners for the psychotic individuals is idiotic to put it nicely. But i guess with owlmanatts logic we should also ban any knives, bows/crossbows, any household item which can be mixed to create a bomb, cars, baseball bats, etc. Not to mention the only people who would follow such a ban would in fact be the victims of crimes. Lets just completely ignore the fact that plenty of people are saved from being murdered, robbed, rapped and kidnapped because they owned a firearm. How about fixing real problems with real solutions.

posted by: robn on December 18, 2012  6:18pm


The homicide peak from which we’ve declined (and leveled out to a historic rate) was at the peak of the crack epidemic. Try again.

posted by: William Kurtz on December 19, 2012  9:37am

It’s a mistake to measure the toll guns are taking only in murders; suicides, accidental shootings, and killings that pass the disturbingly-low standard to be declared ‘justified’ have to be considered as well.

According to the Violence-Policy Center, gun deaths have been on a gradual rise since 1999 and out-paced motor vehicle deaths in several states in 2010.

It’s time to think of guns not only as a crime problem, but a public health problem.

posted by: gunsarenttheproblem on December 19, 2012  10:35am

1. The gunsuicides WILL turn into other forms of suicide, don’t be silly. 2. Accidental deaths could be reduced drastically with proper education and safer storage of the firearms. 3 I dont hear a single person blaming cars, alcohol, knives etc. For all the deaths they cause. So if we ban guns we can ban vehicles, tobacco,alcohol(we saw how this and our war on drugs has turned out) and we can ban any substance which can make a bomb, knives, baseball bats, rope, and the list goes on of things people have used to kill themselves, others, or accidentally killed themselves or others with. Then we will all have that perfect society we all want…...NOT. let’s just be honest its a problem with we the people not the things that have no life.

posted by: William Kurtz on December 19, 2012  11:45am

Guns may not be the, but it’s beyond rational debate that they are a problem.

1. Many of them, probably. It seems likely that the numbers of murder-suicides and family annihilations will drop substantially.

2. This education has been sorely lacking. For a long time, it was part of the NRA’s platform—providing safety education and training for gun owners. I imagine they’re still doing that, to some degree, but face the facts: the NRA represents big money gun manufacturers and not hunters, sportsmen, or target shooters. They, and those manufacturers, resist all common-sense attempts to require this training or safe storage. Trigger locks, magazine safeties, smart gun technology all rejected.

3. C’mon. The reason you’re not hearing people blame cars, knives, and alcohol here is, well, cars, knives, and alcohol had nothing to do with this subject. Read any one of the other innumerable NHI stories about the devastation caused by speeding car traffic and scofflaw motorists who flout red lights, speed limits, and traffic signals of all kinds. A lot of us have a lot to say on those topics.

And besides, cars and alcohol are heavily regulated at both the state and federal levels. If only we had the same sorts of controls on firearms…

Complex events have complex causes. I agree that gun regulation is not the answer, but it is an important part of the answer. Yes, there are “problems with we the people” but as a society, we address those in all sorts of ways. For example, when it became clear that there was a segment of the population that found it amusing to bowling balls and other heavy objects from highway overpasses, it became the standard to put up fences.

posted by: gunsarenttheproblem on December 19, 2012  12:02pm

My point wasn’t that knives alcohol or vehicles had anything to do with this incident but we have 34000 alcohol related vehicle deaths in the US, vehicles and alcohol being banned would save just as many lives. No removing guns wouldn’t reduce murder-suicides, they can just as easily use a knife. Come on we have millions of people who properly store, and use firearms but we punish man for the crimes of a few. I wouldnt punish all vehicle owners because some drunk idiot killed my wife and kids….

posted by: aharper on December 20, 2012  8:36am

(this is the author here).My concern with steel doors and safe rooms (etc) for schools is that the more visible security measures there are around us, the more we believe that we are living in danger. People who live in fear are more likely to want to protect themselves and their families.  Children who are educated with the constant presence of intense security measures that are there to ‘keep them safe’ will be more likely to feel that they need security when they are adults. Hence, demand for more guns. And higher walls between them and those they are not familiar with and so may appear dangerous (poor people, people with mental illness, foreigners etc).  And so on.

Apart from anything else we simply don’t have enough money to keep ourselves ‘safe’ in this way. At a national level our obsession with keeping ourselves ‘safe’ through security measures and weaponry has led to the perversely large sum of money we spend on defence every year (more than $900 billion), while our education and other systems agonise over where to cut next (education gets $64 billion a year – how’s that for prioritisation?). Do we really want to bring this same dilemma down to individual school districts and schools?  A choice between defence and education?  When we KNOW that education works in the long term, but there are real questions about whether increased defence does actually make us safer in the long term? Seems crazy to me.

And as for comparing guns to cars, there’s a big difference between the two. Cars can be incredibly dangerous, but we also NEED them. Ideally in the future if we have better public transport, more efficiently designed cities etc we will need them less, but many of us will still need a car.  By contrast, the vast majority of us do NOT need guns. People who hunt, well, I wouldn’t call it a need, but I suppose arguments can be made for guns for that purpose. Police? Okay, though there are many countries in the world where most policemen do not routinely carry guns (and they wouldn’t need them so much if there were less guns in society).  But the rest of us, I would say we can live without them.

As for alcohol, the parallels with guns are more compelling. Personally I don’t drink alcohol so wouldn’t care if it was banned, and

posted by: aharper on December 20, 2012  10:36am

.....and I would certainly love to see a society where it was used less.  However, there is a key difference between guns and alcohol; the former are designed for one purpose only – to destroy a target.  They are inherently destructive and have nothing to do with good food…

posted by: Max Simmons on December 20, 2012  10:55am

There can be no reasonable doubt that the paranoid will see in enhanced security measures a justification for their paranoia. I’m not sure how that changes the baseline question, though: What is reasonably necessary to protect against a known and demonstrated threat? I think a similar starting point would also need to govern cost questions.

As with most things, central to the discussion will be weighing the trade-offs. Students, teachers, parents would no doubt not “feel” as serene in a “secured facility” school environment, though they may “feel” (and would be) safer. Best-practice security measures will cost a lot of money, but the costs of doing nothing are arguably incalculable. Armed personnel, steel doors and security fences will harm the innocence of children, but the failure of security will harm far more than their innocence.

Where the appropriate balance resides I will not be so presumptuous as to claim to know all on my own. That will need to emerge from community dialog. What I do know is that dialog can only proceed and be fruitful if it begins with allegiance to clear discernment and honest acknowledgment of the relevant factors to be balanced and their concrete contribution to achieving the community’s goals.

posted by: gunsarenttheproblem on December 20, 2012  11:20am

actually if you REALLY want go get technic the only reason we Need cars isbtransportation of goods. We don’t need cars human beings went without for thousands of years. But that’s fine I will make another comparison. We have from all the data i have found between 750,000 to 1.2 million abortions a YEAR in this country I am by no means a hardcore religious person but lets be honest killing off a growing being is just as bad as killing a person with a gun. You can lay whatever bull crap excuse you want its my right as a woman, I can’t afford it, i don’t want to strain my relationship with my husband, the list goes on of excuses women comee up with to get an abortion. So why do we not make such a big deal about abortion? Because someone is willingly choosing to get one? I have no problem if its rape incest or could harm the mother or father but lets get serious, this country has WAY worse problems than guns. Like i said earlier we have over 270 million guns and a tiny amount are used to kill people, in fact from all data i find we have people using guns in self defense 1 million times a year. Take away those peoples guns, you could very well see a huge spike in homicides, rapes, assaults, crime in general.

posted by: gunsarenttheproblem on December 20, 2012  11:32am

Also we tried the whole ban alcohol/drugs they are all over in the US despite the billions we waste to stop the drugs. Also why do people believe a gun ban would work only honest law abiding citizens aka victims of crimes will turn them in, so we will be left with criminals and police having guns I for one am not willing to wait for a slow policeman to get there life is on the line. If you want to go ahead that’s your right and its my right to defend myself, thank god I have never had to but i would rather have the capability to defend myself and my family. Also another point I watched a documentary back in high school on criminals workshoping their own firearms. Just because something is illegal or banned doesn’t mean it solves the problem. Just pick up a history book you will see it plenty.