Do metal detectors at Wichita public high schools make students feel safer?
By Joyce Davis,2023-03-29
The following article discusses school shootings and drug use.
Editor’s Note: On Sept. 2, 2022, our high school correspondent Joyce Davis, a sophomore at South High, was walking to class after lunch when she suddenly saw students running and someone yelling, “Someone has a gun!” It was quickly determined there was not a gun being fired but a student using fireworks. Davis posted on her Facebook that day, “I’m literally crying and shaking as they yell at us to go back to class. I’m just glad I’m safe and was able to get in contact with my mom. All these guns popping up within these schools is terrifying and someone needs to do something about this.”
In the weeks before students at South High School became panicked by fireworks leading to fear that someone was firing a gun, there had been multiple episodes at Wichita high schools involving guns. Police responded to guns found in the possession of students at West, East and Heights high schools.
“I was terrified,” Makenzie Johnson, a senior at South, said about what happened at her school. “I never thought I would have had to experience it.”
Superintendent Alicia Thompson issued a statement that day that the gun scares were “completely unacceptable and it must stop.” Later that month the Wichita Public Schools board approved spending $1.5 million to install metal detectors at the high schools.
Due to supply chain issues, the first metal detector was not installed until December 2022 at West High School. Since then, metal detectors have been installed at all but two Wichita public high schools. Northwest and East are scheduled to receive them in April, according to Susan Arensman, WPS spokesperson.
Student reaction has been mixed, with some saying metal detectors do not address the underlying trauma and mental health concerns brought on by gun scares and others complaining that the detectors prevent students from bringing prohibited dab pens and vape devices to school – which they say some students rely on to manage stress.
Students want more communication from school district
Students also expressed frustration that administrators do not do more to communicate with them when such situations occur. Many students said they want to be part of the conversation about what is happening at the school that they attend every day.
Johnson, the South senior, said the school seemed to cover it up when it didn’t discuss the event with students. “But many of the student body was talking about who it was and that they knew for a fact there was a weapon.”
The school district maintains there was no weapon nor any real threat.
“We talked to students about safety, and met with Super SAC (Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council), which is a meeting with one student to represent each school,” said Terri Moses, director of safety services for Wichita Public Schools. “But that is not everyone and everyone has their own opinions.There are 47,000 students and no matter how you try, you cannot get to everybody. It’s not possible.”
The metal detectors bought by the district allow people to walk through without pausing to have their bags hand-searched. The district opted to install them one school at a time, with “no real pattern,” according to Moses.
“We knew it would take several days to a week for people to get used to them. We knew there would be slowdowns at the door. We start at one school to work out the bugs, then move on to another school,” she said.
Six Wichita public high schools receive scanners
Detectors were installed in the following order: West High (Dec. 2, 2022); Northeast Magnet (Jan. 19); Chester Lewis Academy (Jan. 26); Heights (Feb. 3); North (Feb. 23); South (March 2).
The detectors at North High were in place on March 1 when the school went into lockdown because of a swatting scare in which a false report was made to police of an active shooter at the school. Wichita police, school administrators and school security checked the building and cleared it in about 15 minutes. North was one of several high schools across Kansas subject to hoax reports that day.
Drianna Ornelas, a North High sophomore, said she heard students talking about how the SWAT team was at the school, but “the school never said anything or made any announcements and we were all in class like a regular day. I was just confused overall.”
Coincidentally, South High’s metal detectors were installed the day after the episode at North. Students said they were not told in advance the detectors were coming.
“In my morning class, these students were crying and sad because they couldn’t bring their vapes to school due to the detectors,” said Christus Foster, a senior at South. “The kids shouldn’t have illegal stuff anyways and they shouldn’t bring it to school.
“They shouldn’t be addicted to substances and being mad at the school. School is not a place to do drugs and bring weapons; it’s a place to get your education, not a prison,” Foster said.
Students say trauma, not guns, is the real threat
Some remarked that whether the threats are real or not, they still create trauma and damage students’ mental health. Research suggests nearly 1 in 4 children will experience trauma by the age of 16. Traumatized youth may turn to drugs to self-medicate. In Kansas, nearly 7% of youth ages 12-17 surveyed during 2020 reported using drugs in the previous month, with marijuana being the most commonly used.
Johnson from South expressed frustration that schools don’t do more to help students with mental health.
“Yes, there are a few teachers that some students feel like they can talk to but of course, it comes with limits. There are some topics that students wish to cover that they can’t necessarily talk to their parents about.”
Wichita Public Schools do provide a number of mental health supports to students and maintain a website where you can look up available help by school. The page includes links to resources for students concerned about bullying, LGBTQ+, grief, suicide awareness and more.
Johnson believes schools don’t do enough. “They are too focused on giving us schoolwork and making us fit to be nothing but workers.”
Moses acknowledged the impact that fear of guns and school shootings has on students’ mental health. Moses said it’s her goal to eliminate firearms from the school buildings so students can feel safe. In addition to scanners, the school district trains staff and students on how to respond to a school shooter.
“There’s a reason we serve breakfast in the morning: If you are hungry you cannot learn, and it is the same with feeling safe,” Moses said. “We want to provide an environment where students can feel safe, feel comfortable and learn to their best ability.”
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