Gold and silver glint from all over Nancy Zito’s outfit: From her neck, where “Nancy,” engraved in curlicued letters on a dog tag, hangs; from her wrists, covered in slim gold bracelets; and from her belt, where a massive buckle dwarfs the slim 17-year-old’s waist.
But as she is pointed toward the entrance of Hill Regional Career High School that is guarded by a portal metal detector, Zito says it has been two days since security guards have chosen her to walk through it and at least two weeks since she has had to remove any of her jewelry.
“There is just no point,” Zito says, irritated.
To Zito, the newly installed metal detectors mean a line that snakes 10 minutes out of the cafeteria doors, rain or shine, effectively pushing back her high school’s 7:40 a.m. start time. But to other students, the metal detectors are a step toward preserving safety against the backdrop of a recent spate of school shootings that have dominated national headlines.
In the wake of the crime spree this past summer, New Haven’s public school system has beefed up security across its high schools. All 13 of New Haven’s high schools have installed portal metal detectors or equipped their security guards with wand metal detectors this year; only two of the 13 had comparable systems in place last year. Special school resource officers from the New Haven Police Department are supplementing the existing school security force.
“We have enhanced police visibility in and around schools, both in response to things happening in the city and events in the country,” NHPD spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said.
The metal detectors were installed in response to escalating neighborhood violence, according to a Sept. 6 letter from Superintendent of New Haven Public Schools Reginald Mayo. They have since spawned a fierce local debate over whether or not they violate students’ civil liberties, with two high-profile single-student boycotts — one at the Metropolitan Business Academy and one at Career — being closely followed by local activists and the press.
Jeff Ervin, a Board of Education special constable who works at Career, said the new measures are designed to maximize student safety while minimizing disruption.
“Our new security measures are a deterrent, and not a cure-all,” Ervin said. “They make kids more aware and more cognizant of the dangers with society as a whole.”
Roger Vann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said he was uneasy about search policies that left wanding and commands to walk through portal metal detectors up to officers’ discretion.
“Students have the right to be protected from unlawful searches and school systems have the right to protect students who are in their care from danger,” Vann said. “There should be a balancing act.”
To the extent that metal detectors are a part of the school system’s security repertoire, Vann said, schools should require everyone to walk through them, a process that he called “equitable, if perhaps inefficient.”
“To leave it up to the discretion of security personnel to determine who should be wanded or not, that leaves open a window for profiling, and I think that is where the process breaks down,” Vann said.
Several students at Career said the metal detectors, equitable or not, are ineffective. A potential criminal could come in from the front doors, which are reserved for visitors and rarely guarded, said Zoe Hunter, 17. Someone could hide a knife in a belt: When students are wanded, they are rarely asked to remove any of their metal accessories, said Michelle Garable, 17. And someone could bury a weapon in a backpack, since those are rarely opened, said Stefanie Curtis, 15.
Still, Antoine Jones, 15, a freshman at Career, said the metal detectors make him feel safer, even if they may not catch 100 percent of criminals.
“Maybe the metal detectors and security guards will scare someone away,” Jones said. “All I know is that the shootings this summer were a little bit scary, and I’m glad someone is trying to stop them.”
But Ervin, who has been working in the New Haven Public School system for 15 years, said the system is, in many ways, lucky. A progressive administration devoted to lessening crime citywide and a good group of students means that the crime-fighting measures that he was involved in more than a decade ago have not had to be resurrected, despite the recent spike in crime.
“We are fortunate at Career because we have kids who want to be here,” Ervin said. “We try not to think too much about area concerns, but remain vigilant.”
Ultimately, said Mara Harwell ’09, a public-school intern at High School in the Community, security measures, at least at her school, are generating less talk internally than they are on the outside.
“A lot of the hype is outsiders who see these schools as a lot less safe than they actually are,” Harwell said. “A few incidents get a lot of overreaction.”