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Basketball Game Shootings Reignite Metal Detector Debate

Shootings at high school and rec center basketball games reignite the debate about using metal detectors on spectators.

Xray Gun 0509 Shootings at three high school and youth basketball games earlier this year caused some administrators and facility operators to take up the age-old debate over whether metal detectors should be used on spectators.

The Bullard High School campus in Fresno, Calif., went into lockdown mode on a Friday night in late January after a gun was fired outside a crowded gymnasium. The boys' basketball game between Bullard and archrival Edison High was halted while police searched unsuccessfully for the shooter. No one was injured.

A month later, in Norwalk, Conn., a man was shot in the leg in the parking lot outside of Brien McMahon High School as dozens of people left a game in which the home team boys lost to Greenwich High in a blowout. Police told local media that the incident did not involve students from either school and that they did not anticipate further violence.

But that didn't stop Sal Corda, superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools, from scanning fans with metal-detecting wands before the final home basketball game a few days later at the city's other public high school, Norwalk High. "It was really about creating the visual representation that the district was taking steps to make sure that kids felt safe coming to the game," Corda says. "It wasn't prompted by any expected trouble. We did what we thought a reasonable person would do in terms of trying to ensure the safety of the environment."

Susan Bedi, spokesperson for the Fresno Unified School District, says that although administrators there discussed introducing metal detectors at future basketball games - fans were screened for the first time at district football games last fall - they ultimately decided against it.

Meanwhile, parks and recreation officials in Kansas City, Mo., also were reviewing their security practices after shots rang out during an argument among spectators at a boys' basketball 18-and-under league game in February at the Tony Aguirre Community Center. At least four people were hurt, and four guns were recovered at the scene. The facility's gymnasium had been rented by a local organization unaffiliated with any area school district, parks officials told reporters, adding that they were considering the use of metal detectors at future events.

"Metal detectors are not the answer in all cases," cautions Patrick Fiel, public safety advisor for education at Alexandria, Va.-based ADT Security Services, which provides security solutions to thousands of high schools and colleges nationwide. "There are a lot of schools around the country where you don't need metal detectors; you need a plan."

A proactive game-security plan certainly can include screening for weapons with metal-detecting wands or walk-through devices operated by trained personnel. But those tools should be supplemented by indoor and outdoor security cameras, a heightened law-enforcement presence, enhanced outdoor lighting and frequent patrolling of areas around the venue, Fiel says. During his six-year tenure as executive director of school security for District of Columbia Public Schools, he also set up an anonymous hotline for parents and students to phone in tips about who was carrying weapons, and when and where they planned to use them.

If would-be perpetrators know they will be screened upon entering a gymnasium or football field, they often will hide guns and knives outside the school - usually in bushes or other foliage - for easy retrieval. The shootings in both Fresno and Norwalk involved individuals who might not have even attended the games, in which case metal detectors wouldn't have helped. "They might not have made any difference at all," Corda agrees. "But, again, it's a question of what you can reasonably do, and we thought it was important to take action where we felt we had some control over the situation."

"You're going to see more and more metal detectors at sporting events, because it has been proven they are a deterrent," Fiel says, noting that grants for security-technology purchases are available from the federal Departments of Education and Homeland Security. It's crucial, however, for school administrators to explain to spectators why they are being subjected to such precautions.

Corda, for one, won't hesitate to use metal detectors again if there's even an "inkling" of trouble brewing. "Not for a minute," he says. "The question I ask myself is, 'If I were concerned about whether my kid was going to be safe at a basketball game - and I knew the school was going to wand everybody to make sure that no one was carrying a weapon of any kind - would I be okay with that?' And if my answer is, 'Yes, I would,' then that is what guides my thinking."

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