Board members unsure metal detectors needed at Beaufort County schools

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMay 8, 2013 

In this file photo, police officers barricade the entrance to Bluffton High School during a May 1, 2013, lockdown after then-17-year-old Austen Almeida brought a loaded gun and knives to the school.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

A week after Bluffton High School was locked down for several hours because a student brought a loaded gun and several knives to school, Beaufort County Board of Education members are unsure metal detectors would prevent such incidents.

One school board member and some parents have suggested county schools install the devices after 17-year-old Austen Almeida brought a loaded handgun, 12 knives, lighter fluid, a lighter and fireworks to campus.

"I hate the thought that students need to feel like criminals walking into schools," said Evva Anderson, a Bluffton school board representative. " ... However, I don't like the thought of any harm coming to our children."

Anderson said she suggested to board members a few months ago that metal detectors be installed at the high schools.

"I'm not truly set in the process," Anderson said. "... But I think it's our responsibility to think of and review all of the possibilities."

Other school board members say they're receptive, as well, but want to give the topic more thought.

Board member Michael Rivers of St. Helena Island said installing metal detectors would be an overreaction.

The issue has prompted a recurring debate familiar across the nation about school safety measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn. The school shooting prompted an examination of school safety nationwide -- including in Beaufort County -- and calls for more armed security in schools.

Neither the debate, nor the use of metal detectors are unprecedented in Beaufort County. The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office used the devices to check students coming into Hilton Head Island High School and other schools in southern Beaufort County after a series of bomb threats in late 1999. The district purchased 30 hand-held metal detectors early the next year.

Everyone entering Bluffton High was searched with a metal-detector wand in 2005 after a student threatened violence against Bluffton Schools in an online chat room.

Currently, county middle and high schools have armed school resource officers on campus during the school week. The Sheriff's Office also launched a program at the beginning of the year to send officers to district elementary schools during their routine patrols.

In the case of last week's incident at Bluffton High, an armed school resource officer responded immediately after a teacher and guidance counselor alerted law enforcement that Almeida had weapons, according to principal Mark Dievendorf. Almeida confided to a teacher he was thinking about hurting himself and had brought the weapons to school, the principal said.

Bluffton and Beaufort police officials have said their officers are well-equipped for school emergencies and have drills in schools after hours to prepare for them.

Metal detectors are not practical for every school, but they are appropriate "when you have an ongoing, persistent situation with weapons coming into school," said Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Bond was principal at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., in 1997 when a freshman opened fire there, killing three.

When someone arrives at a school already shooting, he notes, a metal detector makes no difference and "are no more effective than the people running them are."

"You absolutely have to have an armed guard behind it willing to kill a kid quick," Bond said. "Otherwise, it looses its value."

"You're better off to invest resources where your most pressing concerns are," Bond said. In Bluffton High's case, that seems to be student counseling and mental-health intervention, he said.

Beaufort County school board chairman Bill Evans agreed.

"Think about going to the airport," Evans said. "I understand people's concerns and suggestions that we heighten security at schools. We will certainly look at that, but I believe we're at the cutting-edge of school security. I think we have a good, positive relationship with law enforcement."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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