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Clear backpacks, metal detectors come to PGCPS; Do they work?

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Posted on: August 10, 2023

By Heather Marléne Zadig

In a reversal from an announcement made earlier this month, Prince George’s County Schools (PGCPS) stated in a July 31 email to families that a new mandatory clear backpacks policy will only apply to high schools in the district; most middle schools will now be exempt. 

The new superintendent of PGCPS, Millard House II, previously said at a July 11 press conference that clear plastic backpacks would be required at both middle and high schools this fall to deter weapons on campus. An additional security measure of weapons detectors at all high schools and eventually several middle schools will still be phased in incrementally throughout the fall, as announced earlier. 

At the press conference, House cited security efforts at sports stadiums as his rationale behind supporting the measures, adding that “these types of security enhancements are nationwide, and I think they make sense.” The district communications office said guidelines related to clear backpacks have not yet been finalized, but thousands of backpacks are being made available to families in need, and updates can be found at pgcps.org.

Lisa Pfueller Davidson, parent of a rising 11th grader at College Park Academy, told the Life & Times she’s concerned about the lack of padding in clear backpacks for expensive, required laptops, especially while riding bikes to school. She also called the policy “a show of security theater” that seemed ineffective. “It projects a terrible image for our public schools,” Davidson said. 

The two most recent high-profile incidents involving guns in PGCPS did not appear to involve backpacks. In May, three suspects were charged with attempted homicide of a fourth student on a school bus with a gun, but surveillance footage suggests they were wearing hoodies, not backpacks. On July 10, a loaded gun was safely confiscated from a student’s waistband at a Central High School summer program.

PGCPS Board Member for District 3, Pamela Boozer-Strother, offered a statement to the Life & Times over email, saying security was a “top level concern” and that PGCPS will be monitoring the new security measures for effectiveness.

A similar clear backpacks rule in Broward County, Fla., recently led to a swift parent backlash, with parents arguing the backpacks violated student privacy, were a waste of funds, and would not make students safer, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The rule was then quickly reversed in June. 

The other new PGCPS security policy involves installing Opengate AI weapons detectors in a four-phase rollout at all high schools and several middle schools over the next year, costing an estimated $4.09 million total, with $2.07 million coming from grant money. The district will pilot the units at six high schools right away and aims to install them in all high schools by October, then in some middle schools at a later date.

Boozer-Strother said the decision to introduce weapons detectors was made by the previous superintendent but that board members encountered the CEIA Opengate systems last year at association conferences. 

Opengate’s intended target is “high caliber assault weapons and other large mass casualty metal threats,” according to a CEIA press release. In an interview with Campus Safety magazine, a CEIA representative acknowledged the company does not consider pocket knives and other smaller weapons to be a mass-casualty threat. He noted that if the sensitivity were set that high, there would be frequent false alarms such that students “would no longer be able to carry a backpack full of stuff.” 

When asked about this issue, county schools spokesperson Raven Hill said, “We can let students know what to remove prior to screening.”

Recent local and national data involving guns in schools indicates that most shootings occur outside in areas not subject to screening, like parking lots, bus stops and ball fields. A Life & Times analysis of all recorded gun incidents at PGCPS campuses from January 2022-present (from news reports and national databases) found just four out of the 18 documented gun incidents involved attempted or actual shootings; of those, none occurred inside school buildings. 

Table 1: PGCPS K-12 Gun Incidents From 2022 to Present*

Date School Location Incident Injuries?
7/9/23 Central HS In school SRO told of student w/gun, confiscated safely from waistband 0
6/8/23 Bowie HS Parking lot, area around school Person w/“long gun” reported seen outside; was a juvenile with air pistol 0
5/11/23 North Forestville Elementary School Parking Lot (6:30 PM) Man shot & killed in possible carjacking 1 dead
5/4/23 Alternative Middle School in Suitland School bus 3 students attack another, attempted murder w/gun (malfunctioned) 1 injured
4/26/23 Northwestern HS Football Field Strong-Arm Robbery 1 injured
2/24/23 Benjamin Stoddert Middle School In school Student searched by SRO for vaping, knife that looked like gun confiscated 0
2/8/23 DuVal HS In school Gun found in search of student 0
2/2/23 William Wirt Middle School In school Student told school sec. about student w/gun; loaded gun found in drawer 0
2/1/23 Northwestern HS Football field Alleged armed robbery by student, no weapon found 0
1/19/23 (approx.) PGCPS Students in Langley Park Bus stop Reports of 1 or more robberies at knifepoint 0
12/8/22 Suitland HS Outside, near football stadium Shooting 1 injured
11/28/22 Frederick Douglass HS In school Gun reported to SRO, confiscated 0
9/27/22 Surrattsville HS In school School sec. searched student for drugs, loaded gun found 0
8/29/22 Suitland HS In school Student arrested for non-school carjacking, gun confiscated 0
8/29/22 Suitland HS In school Parent notified school of student with gun, SRO confiscated gun 0
5/26/22 Fairmont Heights HS In school Gun parts found, confiscated 0
4/26/22 Northwestern HS Football field (10:40 PM) Reports of shots fired 0
3/10/22 Cora L. Rice Elementary School Out front Adult w/handgun, fled 0
2/21/22 John Carroll Elementary School Playground Adult w/handgun, fled 0
2/5/22 Benjamin Stoddert Middle School In school Airsoft replica gun confiscated 0

*Data compiled from news reports and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS)

Additionally, county district data of incidents involving school resource officers (SROs) in 2017-20 show a tiny fraction involved firearms — 0.1% of all SRO incidents, while the sum of all physical attacks, bullying and other personal threats made up 46.6% of SRO disciplinary situations. Data from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School from 2017-22 reported zero firearm incidents, with 3.3% involving other weapons, and physical attacks/personal threats making up 21.5% of discipline events. 

Table 2: SRO Incidents over 3 School Years, 2017-2020*

Category # reported
Weapons-related Incidents
Firearms 8
Other guns 28
Explosives 30
Other Weapons 839
TOTAL 905
Percent of total Incidents 2.8%
Physical Violence and Other Personal Threats
Sexual attacks 40
Extortion/Shakedown/Strong Arm 111
Sexual Harassment 355
Bullying/Harassment 616
Threats to Adults/Students 1,447
Attacks on Adults/Students 4,752
Fighting 7,681
TOTAL 15,002
Percent of total Incidents 46.6%
Total Disciplinary Incidents** 32,178

*Includes Covid-19 school closures

**(includes non-violent behavioral disruptions not listed here, such as “Disrespect”)

 

Table 3: Northwestern High School Disciplinary Incidents 2017-2022

Type # of incidents
Possession or use of firearms or other guns 0
Carrying a firearms to a school function 0
Possession or use of other weapons 48
Threats, Fights, Attacks, & Bullying 317
Total Disciplinary Incidents 1,471

When presented with Life & Times data showing outdoor locations for recent shootings and the largely weapons-free nature of violence in PGCPS schools, Hill said, “We view the security screeners as another tool in our toolbox and believe training and evaluating best practices will make all members — students and staff — of the PGCPS community safe.”

Most research on metal detectors in schools, including a comprehensive 2011 U.S. government meta-analysis, suggests that they have little to no impact on school safety and may actually make things worse. According to the U.S. Secret Service and the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, improving school culture and climate has the biggest impact on reducing school violence, along with threat assessment and targeted prevention and counseling. 

Boozer-Strother highlighted the district’s continuation of the Hazel Health online portal offering free teletherapy to all PGCPS students as a major contribution. County schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie noted over email that the district is spending $1.8 million to expand school wellness centers (which offer physical healthcare). She also cited grant funds for mental health training and supports, parent support centers and community schools partnerships, among other areas. 

A review of the proposed 2024 PGCPS budget shows that several offices tasked with supporting school climate and student mental health had either significant decreases or only negligible increases over the previous year’s estimate: community schools (-41.7%), family and school partnerships (+0.07%), and student services (-29.4%). There were no requested staffing increases for psychologists, social workers, therapists or guidance counselors in the proposed 2024 budget. 

The proposed budget does request an additional 11 full-time security personnel from 2023 estimated levels, for a total of 21 new security staff since 2022. The district’s safety and security office has one of the largest increases in requested 2024 funding of any other office, at +7.4%.

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