The idea of putting metal detectors in all of Atlantic City’s schools has gained attention since a teen was killed blocks away from one of the middle schools this year.
But there is more to school security — and keeping kids from a violent path — officials explain.
“We’re very concerned with the problem of juvenile crime in the city,” Superintendent Donna Haye said. “We’re looking at a more broad-based way of addressing that.”
Atlantic City’s schools reported four weapons — none of them real guns — last school year, according to the state Department of Education’s annual report that encompasses everything from real and imitation firearms to box cutters and pepper spray. Egg Harbor Township reported twice that amount, and Millville and Vineland topped the region at 17 and 14, respectively. Yet none of those schools has metal detectors.
Egg Harbor Township Superintendent Scott McCartney said metal detectors have not been a significant topic of conversation in the district.
“We certainly have invested in security but feel at this time our current measures are effective,” he said.
Meanwhile, Atlantic City’s violence problem off school grounds has put a focus on the schools. That focus sharpened after a student at the alternative high school allegedly opened fire on a group Jan. 8, killing a 13-year-old. Angel Mercado-Santiago had just been dismissed from the Pennsylvania Avenue School a few blocks away when he died. A 15-year-old high school student was wounded.
Both Atlantic City High School and the Viking Academy alternative high school on Indiana Avenue have students pass through metal detectors. At a community rally held shortly after Mercado-Santiago’s death, those gathered agreed all of the city’s schools should have them.
It would cost a total of $28,000 to put one detector in each of those schools, said Dewane Parker, the district’s chief of security. The high school has three entrances, with four detectors at the main one and two each at the smaller doors. Viking has one.
Adding to the expense would be hiring more personnel, since the detectors need to have security officers, including one man and one woman in the event of pat-downs, he explained.
“We’ve been looking at this ever since the tragedy occurred,” Haye said. “We’re also looking at other safety mechanisms that need to be put in place that I think are much more important.”
That includes helping students deal with problems off school property, where their peers are often victims and — in seemingly growing numbers — suspects.
“The schools are supposed to be a safe haven,” Parker said.
And the district has worked to maintain that.
Each building is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., offering before- and after-school activities and feeding thousands of students breakfast, lunch and dinner, Haye said.
No guns have been brought into any of the schools in Parker’s 13 years with the district, he said. But, on Feb. 6, a 15-year-old was taken into custody after he was allegedly seen stashing a gun behind the Cedar Market before heading into class at Viking Academy.
When there were bushes outside the high school off Albany Avenue, Parker said they would find weapons stashed there as well.
Metal detectors won’t stop that, several teens said during a Youth Summit held this week at the high school and attended by students as young as sixth grade.
“It’s the society we live in now,” high school senior Shaniquah Algarin said.
Guns are easily available, and fear increases the demand, students said.
“They need to have someone outside the schools watching,” Nasim Holloway, 14, said of students arming themselves after school is out. “There need to be more police officers there.”
Kids who have no adults there for them also need help in that way, the eighth-grader said.
Marina Harris-Bell isn’t scared at the Martin Luther King Jr. Complex, where she’s an eighth-grader. It’s the violence that faces the neighborhoods she worries about.
She lives in the Westside, the same area where her uncle was killed June 18, 2012. Two brothers are charged in the deadly shooting of Zachary Taylor, a 19-year-old aspiring rapper who lived in Mays Landing.
“We need people to get together and join watch groups for the neighborhoods,” Harris-Bell, 14, said during a group session at the high school. “Everybody knows Back Maryland, the (Stanley Holmes) Village and Carver Hall are dangerous.”
City Councilman Marty Small — coordinator of elementary extracurricular activities for the district — said metal detectors can be a deterrent but “are not going to solve the violence problem in Atlantic City overall.”
“The schools aren’t the problem when it comes to violence,” he said. “We have an issue in the community.”
Next month, the district will sponsor another summit — this time for parents.
Meetings school officials had with the city administration and police chief include possibly adding a third officer to the two resource officers the district already has. The city could also hire more Class II officers — who have almost the same powers as full-time police but work without benefits for $15 an hour.
Mayor Don Guardian said he would back those hires, if the district is willing to take the expense.
“I told (Haye) I believe that is probably the best thing for the dollar,” the mayor said.
Small said it could help improve relations between students and law enforcement.
“It would create familiarity, because that cop will be in that school all day,” he said. “They get to know the staff, know the children, know some of the problems the children are having.”
This past week, both the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders and City Council weighed in on the issue.
All of Atlantic City’s schools should have metal detectors, Freeholder Ernest Coursey told the city Board of Education on Tuesday, hours after a resolution he sponsored at the freeholder meeting passed.
But board member John Devlin said if the freeholders are making the suggestion, they should also be helping with funding.
“Either you’re part of the solution or part of the problem,” said Devlin, a 13-year veteran of the city’s Police Department. “Put your money where your mouth is.”
The question also becomes whether it makes sense to put metal detectors in all the schools, which would include the district’s youngest students.
Board President Pat Bailey said, at this point, they are not looking at the pre-Kindergarten to fourth-graders but possibly the junior-high level.
“Those are decisions that are not fully made,” she said. “We have a lot of considerations to make.”
She said she doesn’t want a call next year that a young student is traumatized having to go through a metal detector every day.
Several studies have found that students exposed to “safe school” policies such as security guards and metal detectors were actually more likely to feel unsafe, according to a 2011 article in the Journal of School Health.
Atlantic City is different, though, Parker said.
“These kids live in an urban district,” he said. “I don’t think metal detectors are going to upset their day, especially with the war of violence that’s going on in their neighborhoods. We just want to make sure the violence doesn’t filter into our schools.”
Haye expects to present a plan to the board March 4.
“We just don’t want to make any rash decisions,” Bailey said. “We do know that time is of the essence. We’re just hoping that, once this information is in writing, we can make an informed decision.”
Staff writer Diane D’Amico contributed to this report.
Contact Lynda Cohen:
@LyndaCohen on Twitter