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Columbus considering security improvements at elementary and middle schools

At a demonstration Friday at East High School, the Evolv system allowed people to pass with with personal items but detected a simulated weapon.
Matthew Rand
At a demonstration at East High School, the Evolv system allowed people to pass with with personal items but detected a simulated weapon.

Now that Columbus high schools are equipped with new high-tech weapons detection systems, district leaders are considering how they might also beef up security at elementary and middle schools.

The Evolv Express weapons screening devices in use at the district's high schools work differently from traditional metal detectors. They use artificial intelligence and advanced sensors that can flag guns, knives and other weapons, but allow people with keys, cell phones and other personal items to pass through.

The district's safety and security director Chris Baker on Tuesday told school board members the reaction from students has been positive.

"They were like, 'Wow, thank God, this is working. I don't have to stand outside? All you need is my Chromebook? I don't have to take my phone out?' and they thought they still had to get screened again, and I was like 'No, you're good. Go on to class.' We actually had a couple kids say, 'Man, I'm not even gonna miss first period today.' And that was that was amazing," Baker said.

At the end of the presentation, a board member asked Baker what's being done to keep weapons out of middle and elementary schools.

“The taskforce that we're putting together is going to help us look at what is our next measures as it relates to our middle schools and our elementaries," Baker told the board.

In a statement, a district spokeswoman said things like metal detectors and other deterrents are still up for discussion at the lower grade levels.

"Our school leaders and school-based teams are constantly looking at where they need to adjust, pivot and refine their school safety plans. It is a fluid process that is monitored daily."

Columbus is joining a national push to "harden" schools against threats.

“I wish I could tell you that there's a program of strategy that's going to be out there, it's going to be the panacea for all violence within schools, but it just doesn't exist," said Justin Heinze, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and co-director of the National Center for School Safety, a training and technical assistance resource for schools around the country funded through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Deterrents like video cameras and metal detectors are great in theory, but not always implemented well, Heinze said.

“For example, I've been to schools where a metal detector is at the entry of the building, students walk around it. Or there is a security station, but no one's manning it. Or in one case, I can even remember the metal detector wasn't plugged in.”

Heinze said there's still not enough data to say for sure how effective these sort of advanced surveillance techniques will be be at preventing violence in schools.

“You really want to be pairing some of these prevention efforts as well, some of the things that are upstream so that we never get to the point where someone is bringing a weapon to a school in the first place," he said.

Still, some parents said putting weapons screeners in middle and elementary schools would give them peace of mind.

Summer Guy has a fourth grader and a second grader who attend Southwood Elementary, on the city's south side.

“We are in a neighborhood where younger kids are out here selling drugs. We are in a neighborhood where things are happening, that they shouldn't be happening. And they're taking guns to school, because [they] don't want to get robbed at school. And that's just the way it is," Guy said.

James Wells, another Southwood Elementary parent, agreed metal detectors are a good idea. The way he sees it, guns and other weapons are too plentiful and too easy for kids to get their hands on.

“It's super easy to get guns. They sell on the streets, no matter what, as long as you got the money, they're going to sell you a gun," he said.

A parent himself, Justin Heinze with the National Center for School Safety said he understands the anxiety many people feel about the threat of violence at school.

“These incidents, they're terrible. But they are thankfully rare. We want to get them to be zero. And we're doing what we can to get there," Heinze said.

But, he said, we must not lose sight of the fact that schools provide kids with critical resources including hot meals, access to mental health and medical care, and in some cases, a reprieve from dangerous environments.

"Even though it is scary, schools are and I hope will continue to be safe places for youth," Heinze said.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.