Many costly security systems–including metal detectors and entry-control devices–are not as effective at improving school security as parents and school officials might hope, according to a recent study.

Crystal Garcia, assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, surveyed 41 school districts about the security equipment they use and its effectiveness.

The study included mostly larger schools in 15 states, including Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). Garcia gathered the information last year, as school administrators rushed to install security systems in the wake of highly publicized school shootings around the country.

Garcia asked schools about the use of metal detectors, cameras, personal identification number (PIN) codes, and scanner cards, all of which will be used in schools in Indiana and elsewhere when students return to the classroom this fall.

Of the 22 school districts in the study using metal detectors, fewer than half said they were effective in reducing crime, especially nonviolent crimes.

“We ought to invest in new technologies, but at the same time, we need money for counselors and staff. We need to pay our teachers better,” Garcia said.

However, Indianapolis schools reported that the detectors have been helpful.

IPS security officers use about two dozen wand devices, which cost from $100 to $300 apiece, throughout the year. In 1991, when random searches with metal detectors began, school officers caught more than 20 students with weapons, according to IPS Police Chief Jack Martin.

“Now it’s down into the single digits, and I attribute that exclusively to metal detection,” he said. “They are deterrents.”

But the best weapons detectors are other students, says IPS Police Lt. Jim Stepancik. Most weapons are found when a student turns in another student, not through the random metal-detection sweeps, Stepancik said.

Entry-control devices–scanners, PIN codes, and turnstiles–fared worse than metal detectors in Garcia’s study. Only one-third of the school districts using these systems said they were effective.

“Yet 14 additional districts [from the 41 studied] plan on acquiring entry-control systems in the future,” Garcia reported.

By far the most effective security devices in reducing overall crime in schools were videocameras and recording systems, according to the study.

About two-thirds of the districts using them said they were effective. Those numbers were even higher for property crimes and disruptive behavior.

On the downside, such devices are expensive and can raise privacy questions. Cameras cost from $1,200 to $4,000 each and a recording system costs about $8,000, according to Dave Conley, the owner of Conzer Inc., which provides security cameras to Indianapolis schools.

Whatever security system a school uses, it should be designed to address the specific needs of that school, Garcia says in the report.

She believes the public has overreacted to isolated, sensational crimes when overall crime in schools is falling.

“A student has a one in two million chance of getting killed in school,” she said.

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Crystal A. Garcia, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 801 W. Michigan Street, BS/SPEA 4063, Indianapolis, IN 46268; phone (317) 274-7006, eMail crgarcia@iupui.edu.