Maxwell Ruckdeschel was buying groceries when a parent of Henninger High School students asked him a question: “When did my children start going to school in a prison?”
Ruckdeschel, a Syracuse City Board of Education commissioner, was at a loss for words.
The parent was referring to metal detector searches of all students for weapons.
The daily searches, which began on October 5, are an “effort to be preventative,” said Tom Ristoff, Director of the district’s Department of Public Safety.
But some, like the parent Ruckdeschel spoke to, are concerned that administrative entry searches are sending students the wrong message. The parent, who said she had originally thought of Henninger as safe, asked Ruckdeschel, “Is there more of a weapons problem than I thought?”
“I couldn’t explain because the board didn’t hear about this until a general email sent out last week to the district community,” Ruckdeschel told the board. “Decisions in the district need to be made with better transparency…Everyone I’ve spoken to was surprised.”
“Schools are merely a microcosm of the larger community in which they are located, and greatly influenced by those events both positive and negative,” Ristoff explained in a powerpoint presentation, referencing the recent spate of school shootings and gun violence in the United States. Weapons in schools is not just a national issue; last year, three weapons were brought into three different district schools over the course of four days.
The district has been having random weapons searches since the 1990s, according to Commissioner David Cecile. “Unfortunately this is the way of the world right now,” he said.
Students have been subject to “random screenings” from 2011 onwards; the difference now is that screenings are daily.
“I didn’t make this decision lightly,” said Superintendent Sharon L. Contreras, noting that she “hates” that she has to enforce the screening process. But student and staff safety is her first priority.
Commissioner Stephen Swift agreed, adding his response to parents concerned about the searches: “Are you okay with a security check before boarding a flight?”
“I commend the district for implementing this given what’s going on in the world,” he added.
The searches are conducted by trained sentries, including some from district middle and elementary schools who assist in the mornings starting at 7:15 a.m., then return to their usual schools. “At the beginning it was slow, but everything but Henninger is fine now,” Ristoff said. To speed up the process at Henninger High School, the Department of Public Safety is asking for approval from the superintendent to have teachers assist as well, he explained.
A school principal or their designated replacement must be present during the searches. Students’ backpacks are screened using electronic baggage scanners, and students walk through metal detectors. If the metal detector goes off, students are screened individually by sentry staff.
“The intent is that everyone who goes into the building goes through the detectors,” said Contreras. She is also looking to revise the district’s bag search policy.
“We can only really search for weapons,” Contreras said. “But if we find something else, like drugs, (students) can be charged.”
When asked how students feel about the administrative entry searches, they “are thanking us on a daily basis,” Ristoff said.
Commissioner Mark D. Muhammad urged community members to “be more vigilant.” He explained that students often hide weapons around the perimeter of the school, just outside the school ground boundaries.
“This is a larger city problem, a nation problem we have to address,” Muhammad said.