Salt Lake City School District’s Weapons Detectors Branded “Racist” By School Board Members

Natasha Biase

The Salt Lake City School District’s (SLCSD) decision to install weapon detectors at its high schools has raised concerns among parents and school board members, some of whom fear the technology will disproportionately affect visible minorities. 

According to KSL, the Salt Lake City School Board approved funding for a one-year contract with security firm PalAmerican to staff machines at several schools city-wide. The anti-gun checkpoints were reportedly installed before students returned to school last month.

News of the SLCSD’s approved plan to have private security guards install and operate the weapon detectors sparked mixed reactions from parents, many of whom did not believe the extra measures will solve the problem of school shootings.

“The person at Uvalde got in through a backdoor that was not locked,” explained one parent.

“Like any other parent, I’m terrified, you know? I love my kids, and I don’t want them to get hurt … A lot of the studies have shown that for the cost of them and the hassle for students and the propensity for maybe even minority students to get hassled more than usual, that they’re not actually keeping kids safe.”

In response to the SLCSD’s plans, some school safety experts also warned there was no guarantee that costly, state-funded weapon detectors would successfully prevent criminal activity. In addition, some stated that these measures would be “detrimental to students — especially those from communities of color.” Notably, no critics provided data to support their claims.

Ashley Anderson, a school board member who voted against PalAmerican’s security contract, expressed that she fears the security guards may have a bias against people of color.

“I oppose it because the data shows that this type of hardening offers virtually zero protection against school-based violence,” she said. “But what I’m even more worried about is the body of public health and police [de-escalation] research that shows unsworn officers — like those in the contract with PalAmerica — risk the escalation of violence, specifically for people of color.”

Sharing her sentiments, board member Mohamed Bayaad explained that his decision to vote against the measures stemmed from the fact that “students are already under so much stress” and that walking through a weapons detector might be “emotionally exhausting” for them.

“I am speaking from my own experiences. I walk through TSA, and I have to prepare myself two days in advance and worry if that weapon detector or that scanner goes off,” he said. “And also, I’m thinking about the minority kids who come from the refugee world, from places of war, and then they would have to walk in through this, and if it beeps, it’s a nightmare. I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

News of the apparent race-based opposition to the safety measures sparked controversy on social media, with some users expressing that the sentiment was inadvertently racist.

One user on X (formerly Twitter) asked: “Are they saying ‘students of color’ carry weapons? but that, for some reason, that shouldn’t be stopped?”

Kevin Dolan, founder and CEO of Exit, shared a screenshot of a quote from SLCSD’s spokesperson, Yándary Chatwin, and stressed the objectivity of the machines:

Others, like @shortmagsmle, joked: “I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their backpack.”

Research by the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe & Healthy Schools has linked security measures such as metal detectors and book bag searches to “poorer educational outcomes,” including “lower math scores and lower likelihood of college enrollment as well as a higher likelihood of being suspended.”

According to a study out of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, “school surveillance methods are more likely to be used at schools with a more diverse student body,” specifically African-American students.

“While the technology may be implemented in every school,” explained Odis Johnson, executive director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe & Healthy Schools.

“We’ve got to keep in mind that children don’t respond equally to similar technology because they come from communities, they come from experiences with not only the technology and teachers but the justice system, which tends to entangle kids from [minority] backgrounds, historically, at higher rates than any other population … So it’s not just equal opportunity in terms of the technology; it’s unequal opportunity in how kids respond to the same technology,” concluded Johnson.

Despite the recent uptick in school shootings over the last few years, the addition of weapon detectors in schools is still uncommon in most schools across the United States.

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