Our Detroit school is a fortress. Every door is locked from the outside and equipped with sensors. Leave it open too long and the alarm screeches through the hallway like a cat in heat.
When school shootings occur, as a school counselor, I spring into action. I prepare myself to have students come to my office for courageous conversations about gun violence. My job is to attempt to restore their confidence and normalcy; get their head back in the academic game.
In Detroit, where I work, no one ever comes to me after a shooting — not even a parent phone call to ask, “what is your plan if someone shoots up the school?” Nothing. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida I decided to go to them. In the lunch room, I sat with my students and asked:
“Did you hear about what happened in Florida.”
“Are you concerned about something like that happening here?”
Their answer is a confident unanimous, “No.”
My kids cavalierly mention, “Black people don’t go around shooting up places, all reckless, white people do that.” I reminded my students of The Charleston Massacre when Dylann Roof, a white supremacist terrorist killed nine black people in their church. So even if black people do not typically commit mass killings on average, we can be victims of them. “Oh, yeah, that was crazy, Mrs. Mohammed,” another student says, “but that was a church. Ain’t nobody getting up in here with no nonsense!”
High School students aren’t confident about much, but my ad hoc focus group of black, Latinx, and Arab-American students are very confident about their safety in our school building on the Detroit’s west side. Every morning students arrive an hour to thirty minutes in their uniform before the first bell to wait in a line to pass through a metal detector, have their backpacks searched, and get patted down by security guards. It is just not students — every parent, guest, even the postman walks through those metal detectors, gets their photo taken, and is greeted by a security guard who escorts them to the main office, right by our deputized police officer’s desk.
Our Detroit school is a fortress. Every door is locked from the outside and equipped with sensors. Leave it open too long and the alarm screeches through the hallway like a cat in heat. All the windows have bars, and thick glass with wire mesh running through it. Shooting it out would be a waste. Only one of the metal six front doors can be opened without a pass-card or a key. And none of the side doors are ever unlocked. There are cameras at every intersection, and patrolling security guards. The main throughway doors have magnets which can be tripped by an alarm and instantly shut and lock, quarantine whatever part of the building you need it to. If there were a shooter, he would not be able to freely roam the building if that particular alarm was tripped. This isn’t The White House, this is inner city schooling.
In high school, I remember going to a Detroit High School basketball game. I had to pass through metal detectors and get my purse searched. I was incensed at the presence of security guards with their handcuffs (no guns) standing by the metal detectors, collecting keys in bowls and ushering students through their daily search before entering the building. I thought the practice was invasive and disrespectful. This was a sacred place of learning, how dare they! I went back to the suburbs and spent the next days going on and on about how black students were being treated like criminals, and how in the suburbs, where I lived, that would never fly. In that context, this practice says these students had black proclivities to gun violence, and as a precaution everyone was searched.
However the origins of metal detectors in Detroit Public Schools is far more nuanced than that. Dr. Robin Oden was the principal of Mumford High School from 1986- 1994. He is an African American man, who speaks like my personal Joe Clark on the phone when he discusses his tenure as principal at Mumford. He is now retired in South Carolina with his wife and a legacy of student success stories. He purchased and installed the first metal detectors in a Detroit school during the 1989-1990 school year.
At this time the once Jewish Bagley neighborhood in Detroit had experienced substantial white flight. As a result of white divestment we saw declining property values and the typical vices that go along with it. Dr. Oden in no uncertain detail recalls the day he decided to get metal detectors for Mumford. On that day, not long after dismissal a student ran back into the school with a gunshot wound to his elbow. On his way home, he had been robbed and shot. Scared for his life he ran to the safest place he could think of — his school.
Oden recalls a sleepless night plagued with question, “as gun violence increases, how can he keep his students safe?” I would imagine during these times many school principals are examining solutions to this question. Metal detectors were his solution. I was pleased to learn that the history of metal detectors in this Detroit school was a proactive choice — not reactive or racially motivated. Nevertheless, minority populated schools still see a heavy police presence and metal detectors far more than their white counterparts — a trend which predates Columbine. Erasing the intent of Oden’s work and instituting another example of over-policing of minority communities.
The thing is, this de facto racial policy of searching mostly students of color is having an adverse effect on white lives. With gun laws in their present state, gun violence can no longer be relegated and attributed to only minority communities.
So with that in mind, why aren’t more white schools taking nuggets from urban environments who have been abating guns in schools for years? Massacres aside there have been a number of cases where students have brought guns into school and committed suicide on campus (a metal detector could have alerted authorities to his intent). We are searched everywhere from the airport to Beyoncé concerts, and everyone hates it. But we move past it for the peace of mind. So I ask this: how have white communities avoided taking responsibility for keeping guns out of their schools, while black students are allowed to be searched every day and no one questions it?
I fail to see the difference between inner city gun violence and suburban gun violence where innocent people end up dead. It is like comparing drive-by’s to mass shootings. However, there have been explicit differences to the approaches to challenge it along racial lines which is pretty on-brand for the United States.
Relegating metal detectors and other violence prevention strategies to students of color perpetuates the lie that black people are inherently more dangerous that whites. It is this very presumption of white innocence which lands us here every time there is a shooting. Nativism and white supremacy tells us that terrorism comes with black or brown skin even though it continues to manifest as white males, and we ignore it. Metal detectors are not a fix all, but students of all levels of privilege deserve to believe they are as safe as my minority students in school.
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash