British Columbia·In Depth

Why metal detectors, police presence might not make schools safer

School districts in Metro Vancouver are reviewing their security protocols after a man stabbed two students, one fatally, at Abbotsford Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C.

School districts are reviewing their security protocols after the fatal stabbing in Abbotsford, B.C.

A makeshift memorial at Abbotsford Senior Secondary on Nov 2, 2016. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Just how did a stranger walk into a school in broad daylight and stab two teenagers?

School districts in Metro Vancouver are reviewing their security protocols after an apparently homeless man was charged this week in the stabbing death of 13-year-old Letisha Reimer at Abbotsford Secondary School. Another 14-year-old girl is recovering in hospital.

Gabriel Brandon Klein, 21, has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Reimer and aggravated assault in the wounding of another girl.

Many on social media are calling for more steps to make school safer, asking if it's time to post metal detectors or sniffer dogs at school entrances.

But these heightened security measures, while potentially deterring violence in schools, come with their own pitfalls.

Lock all outside school doors?

At Abbotsford Secondary School, the school's front door was not locked. But the school's superintendent says that doesn't mean everyone is welcome. 

"Our schools are closed campuses to the extent that we keep our students in and we have lots of adult supervision. But there is nothing that would preclude any stranger from walking into a school," said Superintendent of Schools Kevin Godden.

"A parent to one child could be seen as a stranger to another, and so the protocol that we have at our school is that people check into the office."

Many schools across the country, however, do lock all outside doors and monitor those entering. For example, in schools in Peel District, an area northwest of Toronto, anybody wanting to enter has to show ID on a camera before being buzzed in by the front office.

While locking doors has its proponents, it's not foolproof. 

In 2012, a gunman shot the locks off doors and entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., killing 20 students and six staff. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in a U.S. school.

A memorial to the 26 dead in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut, in 2015. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

In Canada, many of the school shootings were not committed by total strangers. The accused in most cases had some connection to the school. 

In Toronto, the killings of two teenagers prompted the Toronto District School Board to consider installing X-ray scanners. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Manners was shot in a Toronto high school in 2007 and  Hamid Aminzada was stabbed in 2014, while trying to break up a school fight.

At the time, the board decided against the idea. "We don't want to create fortresses," then education director Donna Quan said at the time.

Airport-type wait lines at schools

But New York schools went in another direction.

Imagine having to show up at school at 7 a.m., even though school doesn't start until 9 a.m. Students stand in bottleneck lines to get screened at metal detectors at their high schools. Once inside, they were often told to stay in the school auditorium until class started, "almost like they were in a detention centre."

The metal detectors were first installed in the early 1990s when crime rates were much higher, according to a ProPublica report, and have stayed in place even though crime in public schools has significantly reduced. Some say that's because the metal detectors act as deterrents, and last year, the LA Times reported no students had been shot in a New York City school in the past 13 years.

The New York school district debated removing the metal detectors, with some saying they were too costly and while others say they're discriminatory since they mainly are used in schools serving minority neighbourhoods.

Kathleen Gallagher, a Canadian professor of education, studied the social health of classrooms in Toronto and New York over a three-year period. She says some of the students she spoke with in New York found the X-ray screenings to be an "alienating experience," and there was little evidence to say they actually reduced crime. 

Police drug-sniffing dogs cannot be brought into schools without a warrant or reasonable suspicion. (Canadian Police Canine Association)

Sniffer dogs in schools

Ultimately the question of how to make schools safer comes down to what role you think schools should play in the community. 

"Schools are not the same kind of spaces as rock concerts, clubs or airports," said a 2007 report that looked into how to make schools safer after Manners' death. 

"Schools should be welcoming, safe havens that facilitate a sense of community and promote learning. Security strategies that undermine these fundamental requirements may well come at too great a cost."

The same report also suggested the use of sniffer dogs in schools. But the Supreme Court of Canada found students had a reasonable expectation of privacy at school.

In a particular case from Sarnia, Ont., police had a long‑standing invitation by the principal of a high school to bring sniffer dogs into the school to search for drugs. 

Security guards screen applicants for the study of medicine at Vienna University in July 2012. (Reuters)

The police had no specific reason to suspect that there were drugs at the school on the day they had searched the school and they did not have a warrant.

When the police opened a student's backpack that was flagged by the dog, they found illicit drugs. 

The student was charged, but the court threw out the evidence saying the student's charter rights to privacy had been violated. 

The court decision means sniffer dogs cannot be brought to search student backpacks or lockers without a warrant or reasonable suspicion. 

Trump-version of building walls?

That's the same sentiment Abbotsford's superintendent of schools echoed after Tuesday's stabbing. 

"We want our schools to be places that are open and welcoming to families and to students," Godden said.

Abbotsford police have a youth squad of six officers that works with the schools, but those officers are not there to patrol schools or provide security. Instead, they focus on building relationships with students rather than investigating them on a daily basis.

Const. Ian MacDonald with Abbotsford Police said increased police presence in schools is not the answer. 

"If they feel a cop is patrolling, it makes them [students] think there's some threat to them and is he or she looking to see if I'm doing something wrong," he said.

In the case of Tuesday's stabbing, police have said the attack appears to have been random. 

Letisha Reimer, 13, died after being stabbed at a school in Abbotsford, B.C. (Ulrich Reimer/Facebook)

But Const. MacDonald argued it's difficult to prepare for scenarios like that.

"How do you know that person is going to go off or pick a random victim at any point? In this case, he [the alleged attacker] makes his way into a school where he encounters his victims. But presumably he was out walking about in other parts of the day. But anywhere on his path that day, he could have selected someone along that route to attack."

Ultimately schools are weighing gut instinct to beef up security against the danger of creating a hostile environment for the very students they're meant to protect.

As MacDonald said, "at the end of the day, the solution to safety in schools is not the Trump-version of building walls."