Metal detectors a possibility for Beaufort County Schools

Published 1:47 pm Thursday, November 30, 2023

A handgun found in a Washington High School sophomore’s backpack two weeks ago, did not generate initial conversations about placing metal detectors in schools. Instead it motivated the Beaufort County Board of Education to work with a greater sense of “urgency” to research and plan how metal detectors could be used in local schools. 

Superintendent of Beaufort County Schools Dr. Matthew Cheeseman said the incident “increases the urgency to do something sooner than later, absolutely, to help our students and employees and community feel safe.” 

In a closed session meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 28, Board of Education members listened to a security audit by Beaufort County Sheriff Scott Hammonds. Superintendent of Beaufort County Schools, Dr. Matthew Cheeseman planned to present information about adding metal detectors to local school buildings during the session, but wanted to wait and see if metal detectors were either “too much or not enough for what [Hammonds’] recommendations might be,” he said. 

The Board decided to table any further conversations about metal detectors until their next meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12 “to align to a greater security plan,” according to Beaufort County Schools. 

For more than a year, Beaufort County Schools has considered the possibility of adding metal detectors. In May of 2022, shortly after the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Cheeseman spoke to the Daily News about adding metal detectors. At that time, there were concerns about “changing culture” at school and potential risks of having students wait in lines to go through detectors. 

In an interview with the Daily News earlier this week, Cheeseman said, “I think when people concern themselves with culture, I fully understand that at the end of the day we want to make sure that all students, all employees, our community are safe and our school environments and what comes on campus and what goes off campus.” 

Much like Beaufort County Schools, North Carolina school districts are looking at metal detectors as an added safety measure in response to a growing number of reportable cases of possession of a weapon on school campuses. 

In April of this year, nine North Carolina public school districts voted to continue researching and planning the implementation of metal detectors, according to statewide media outlets. Those schools were Granville County, Johnston County, Hickory Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Guilford County, Vance County, Person County, Halifax County and Nash County Public Schools. High schools in Granville County have used metal detectors for years, but the school district voted to add them to middle and elementary schools. 

Data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s Center for Safer Schools shows the number of reportable criminal offenses involving a weapon confiscated on a school campus rose 60% from four years ago, but has increased by 30% in the last five years. The number of reportable acts of crime involving possession of a weapon on a school campus was 3,292 during the 2021-2022 school year. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt attributed the increase to students’ struggling to adjust after the pandemic. 

“We know that the pandemic and its aftermath have created significant challenges for students, educators and their schools,” Truitt said in a press release published by the Department of Public Instruction earlier this year. “We’re taking aggressive steps to respond this year, and we’re seeking more resources for next year to provide students with the help that they need.” 

Those steps include the Center for Safer Schools awarding $74.1 million in School Safety Grants to 200 school districts and charters. The funding will assist with the purchase of safety equipment, hiring school resource officers, training and services for students in crisis in elementary, middle and charter schools in the state. 

Should the Beaufort County Board of Education vote in favor of adding metal detectors to schools, they can apply for school safety grants during the 2024-2025 school year. They can also request funding from the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners who approve the school district’s annual budget. 

The 25bs-metal detectors Cheeseman currently researching are mobile; therefore, they can be moved to different locations on campus and can be used at sporting events if necessary. 

Cheeseman said the metal detectors are so sensitive they can locate the “carbon metal in a vape.” 

On average, one unit will cost $17,000. With 14 schools in the district, the total amount could be an estimated $238,000. 

Those who doubt the efficacy of metal detectors say they can create a false sense of security, because people assume they can catch any potential weapon. 

Ken Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services,  a private, independent national school safety firm based in Cleveland Ohio. He believes school administrators should  “exercise caution in avoiding making knee-jerk reactions after high-profile incidents of school violence,” per the firm’s website. There are several considerations he believes school administrators should discuss before making a decision – cost of metal detectors, cost of maintenance and/or replacement, the amount of time it takes for students to pass through metal detectors before class begins, who will operate the metal detectors and other items to consider. 

Arguably the most important decisions will be whether metal detectors will operate the entirety of the school day and if they will operate random days of the week. Cheeseman shared that in speaking with other school districts, he found that they will place metal detectors at different locations on campus – an entryway or at the bus lot or decide to not use them at all some days. This is to dissuade a person from bringing a weapon to campus if there is the possibility of a random security check. 

“A weapons detector, you hope, is really a deterrent. If people are bringing things onto campus that they should not bring, you hope that the detector alerts us to have that knowledge and be able to take action from that point…,” Cheeseman said. 

To this, Trump wrote, “the failure to run a 24/7 metal detection program creates an opportunity for persons to enter the school during non-detection operation times and store weapons in the building, if one would desire to do so.  As such, the perceived ‘guarantee’ of safety that some believe metal detectors would provide in schools is truly a false and misleading perception. They may serve as a risk-reduction tool, when properly deployed, but like any other single strategy cannot offer the ‘guarantee’ that some perceive them to provide.” 

All of these considerations will be part of Cheeseman’s presentation to the Board of Education on December 12. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. at Beaufort County Schools’ Professional Development Center (845 N Pierce Street, Washington).

Cheeseman has worked in districts where metal detectors were used in schools. 

In October of 2016 when he was superintendent of Perquimans County Schools, sheriff deputies charged a Perquimans High School student with assault after 13 school district employees were hurt attempting to break up a fight between five students. The employees included teachers, administrators and a district official. 

“Overnight” the school district staged portable metal detectors in the building, Cheeseman said.