Officials at Skyline High School in Longmont, Colo., are about to employ a new tool in their effort to keep their students safe: a sophisticated weapon-scanning technology originally developed for military use.

The high-tech security system, initially designed to track enemy submarines, will be installed at each of the school’s entrances to scan for weapons as students enter the building. The system’s creators say it is superior to the metal detectors used in most schools and airports today because it eliminates the “false positives” these traditional systems often generate.

“What this does is ferret out the metals that are of higher density, or ferrous metals that are contained in guns and knives,” Skyline principal Tom Stumpf said. “These items contain metal that has a higher density than the metals in three-ring binders and pacemakers and underwire bras.”

In August 2000, a representative from WorldNet Technologies—the Bellevue, Wash., company that makes the WeaponScan 80 system—approached participants in a Colorado education convention and asked for volunteers to become a demonstration site for the technology in K-12 education. Skyline’s safety committee unanimously agreed to become a pilot site at no cost to the school.

For the free, one-year pilot, Skyline will have at least nine weapons-detection units—each about the size of a traditional metal detector portal—installed at school entrances. In addition, teachers have been given mobile phones, and cameras have been installed externally.

“We know that the worst-case scenario is probably not going to be prevented,” said St. Vrain Valley School District Superintendent Richard Weber. “We’re just trying to increase the probability that this kind of intervention may have a usefulness in catching instruments that may come into a school.”

WorldNet Chief Executive Officer Phil Ortega said there are a number of reasons the WeaponScan system is more efficient than a traditional metal detector.

“First, it doesn’t use the same technology,” he said. “The average metal detector uses a magnetometer that looks for density of metal. The technology behind WeaponScan is basically sonar-radar technology.”

WeaponScan essentially looks like a normal metal detector portal. According to Ortega, it works by creating a grid system that assesses any weapons-grade metal that passes through the portal. Any metals detected are assigned a signature.

Ortega said the technology is so precise that, based on the signature, users can tell what brand of weapon it is and “that it’s in an ankle holster on your left ankle, six inches from the ground.” The technology can even detect weapons hidden in body cavities, he said.

WeaponScan takes a JPEG image of every person walking through the portal. If the person sets off an alarm, this image is wirelessly and instantaneously sent to whoever is designated as the viewer. That school official then can choose whether to sound an alarm or surprise the offender. If no dangerous materials are detected, the JPEG is overwritten by the next person’s photo.

“One benefit of WeaponScan is that it can send out an alarm signal overtly or covertly. That’s a real benefit in a dangerous situation,” said Ortega. “This way, the administrators have the element of surprise. It is easier to approach someone who does not know they’ve been detected, and it is safer to neutralize that type of situation.”

Ortega expects that within nine to 12 months WorldNet will release a next-generation WeaponScan unit capable of detecting plastic materials found in some weapons, such as Glock-brand handguns.

According to Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., false positives—in which mundane items set off a traditional metal detector—happen “consistently.” Stephens’ organization works to prevent crime and violence on school campuses.

“That’s why most schools don’t use walk-through detectors,” he said. “They use handheld detectors, which intensifies labor costs because you have to have someone to work them.”

The WeaponScan system was demonstrated at Skyline last spring and received mostly positive responses, said Stumpf.

“There was one parent [who] was very upset about it at the time, but he has relented since then,” Stumpf said. “He was concerned that it did not guarantee 100-percent security, but that is not our goal. Our goal is to enhance the security we already have in place.”

Members of the Boulder County, Colo., chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and some students said the system would violate privacy rights. They also say the device isn’t needed. No students have been expelled from Skyline this year or last year for bringing a weapon to school, according to the district.

The base cost for a single WeaponScan unit is $28,000. Although education pricing has not been set yet—figures will be announced after the installation at Skyline—Ortega said the cost will be “in the vicinity of the cost of traditional metal-detection systems.”

“In the education environment, you know that you have to stretch the money in the direction that is most important—and that is learning,” he added. “Our goal is to price the full turnkey solution in a manner that schools can afford.”

According to Stephens, traditional metal detectors generally cost a few thousand dollars.

“But you still have to scan the book bags,” he said. That means schools must purchase a $15,000 or $20,000 magnetometer, like those used in airports. “You can buy a handheld scanner for $150, but then you have to pay someone to work it,” he said, adding that even walk-through units require two or three employees to regulate the line and hand-check after alarms sound.

School safety professionals caution that metal detectors—even ones that employ very high-level technology—deal only with a symptom, not with a problem.

“Most secondary schools have multiple entrance and exit points,” Stephens said. “Schools I’ve visited have a metal scanner set up at the front door, but students enter from other entrances. It’s not unusual to see a rug or stick shoved [between] doors for additional access to the campus. The concept of minimizing those entrance points is very daunting.”

Stephens said three items should be considered when assessing the need for metal scanning:

  • There should be a compelling cause, such as a prior history of weapons offenses in the building;

  • The policy should be “consistently enforced and fairly applied”; and

  • Administrators should make sure the search is not too intrusive with respect to students’ age and gender.

“You have to ask, ‘How would we as adults want to be treated?'” said Stephens. “Students understand the line between supervision and ‘snoopervision.'”

Just because a technology exists does not mean it should be installed in schools, said Stephens: “School safety policies live and die by the goodwill we create or ignore.”

Only about 1 percent of America’s schools use a full-time metal detector, according to the United States Departments of Education and Justice.

Officials from these two agencies say students reporting other students who bring weapons to school still seems to be the most effective way of halting school violence.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


St. Vrain Valley School District

National School Safety Center

WorldNet Technologies’ WeaponScan