‘Welcome to Dunbar Penitentiary:’ Some Fayette students speak out against metal detectors

Instead of feeling more secure from walk-through metal detectors and daily bag searches intended to find weapons, some Lexington Dunbar High School students report feeling violated and under siege.

About 6.3 percent of the more than 600 students responding to a survey used the word “jail” or “prison” to describe the shift in the school’s atmosphere that also included mandatory identification badges and the presence of more school police officers, sophomore Gabriella Staykova told the legislators on the Interim School Safety Working Group during a meeting Tuesday in Eastern Kentucky. The group of lawmakers are contemplating new statewide school safety laws.

“One frustrated student commented that the new atmosphere is ‘more like going into prison and being searched and restricted with no way out,’” said Gabriella, who appeared with other members of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. “Underscoring the point, albeit a little less delicately, another student put it this way, ‘Welcome to Dunbar Penitentiary.’”

Dunbar’s principal took issue with the survey results that the students chose to highlight for lawmakers. She noted that a majority of the school’s students reported feeling safer.

Nevertheless, a total of more than 26 percent of responding students reported feeling unsafe or less safe after the new policies were implemented this fall.

Like Dunbar, other Fayette County public schools are getting new safety measures in the wake of this year’s mass school shootings in Florida and Western Kentucky and the wave of gun incidents and copycat threats that followed in Lexington and elsewhere. The Fayette school board passed a controversial school safety tax to generate $13.5 million to pay for detectors, more secure building entrances, and additional mental health professionals and police officers.

Forty percent of students responding to the survey thought that the new procedures were “simply unnecessary for school safety,” Gabriella said.

One student told surveyors that district officials should have hired more teachers instead of getting metal detectors. Other students said that the funding for metal detectors should have been used for textbooks, supplies or mental health professionals.

Gabriella told lawmakers that students are expected to arrive at school 45 minutes earlier since detectors were installed.

“Many of us girls feel routinely mortified when our bags with sanitary supplies are searched,” Gabriella said. Students don’t like awkward questions from security staff.

However, Gabriella said, “the feedback we heard from Dunbar students does not necessarily undermine the decision to add metal detectors in our school building. Rather it suggests that the adults who are making these decisions might do better in ensuring a smoother implementation by first communicating with students.”

After the meeting, Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains said there was a significant amount of conversation with students and families prior to the implementation of the metal detectors, “so it is surprising that someone would suggest additional communication was needed.”

Furthermore, she helped the Prichard Committee’s student voice team with gathering student input, agreeing to the survey and helping with questions. She asked teachers to allow time for the survey to be taken in class and made multiple announcements on the school intercom encouraging students to take the survey.

“We were pleased to see that more than two-thirds of our students agree the implementation of metal detectors and bag searches are important to keep our school safe, the vast majority of students feel the administration has been open to feedback during the process, and more students report that they feel physically safer,” Rains said. “I’m surprised to hear the results of the survey portrayed negatively to the legislative panel, since the data itself belies that interpretation and the feedback I get from students as they go through the metal detectors every day is positive.

Besides the students, lawmakers heard from Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. Metal detectors improved the climate at Marshall County High School where two students died and several others were injured in a mass shooting in January, he said.

Akers said that’s because teachers helping with searches were making an extra connection with students each day. Teachers and administrators also help with searches at Frederick Douglass and Dunbar where the detectors are installed. Other high schools in the district are set to get them in the coming months.

Nasim Mohammadzadeh, a Dunbar junior who is the student representative on the state legislative work group, told lawmakers that “we students can and must be partners in finding and implementing solutions.”

Nasim and other voice team members are pushing for audits to monitor the climate at Kentucky schools and want students to lead the audits.

Lawmakers have said a comprehensive school safety bill is likely to be introduced early in the 2019 General Assembly. On Tuesday, they said that any safety legislation should take into account different levels of resources among school districts.

The Interim School Safety Working Group won’t make specific recommendations, but will produce a report outlining what members have learned as they traveled the state gathering opinions on new safety measures, said state Sen. Max Wise, R- Campbellsville. Tuesday’s meeting was the group’s last.

Lafayette High Senior Ashley Barnette told the group that a focus should be put on appropriate discipline policies, on student mental health and on giving school counselors better resources.

“What this means,” Ashley said, “is that instead of talking exclusively about hardening our schools, we need to also be talking about softening them.”