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Debate at Lake View High: Can metal detectors stop school shootings?

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On December 16 a 15-year-old freshman standing just a few feet from the main entrance to Lake View High School pulled out a gun and shot another freshman in the leg. Fortunately, the student was not seriously injured; his assailant was arrested and is being held in the county's juvenile-detention center. Police say the incident was in retaliation for another gang-related shooting that took place across the street from Lake View on December 8. Both shootings sent a tremor of worry throughout the neighborhood near the high school, and have revived debate on whether the school should be outfitted with metal detectors.

After several highly publicized schoolyard shootings Mayor Daley offered two metal detectors to every public high school in June--a program that has so far cost the city about $330,000. Local school councils at 61 of the system's 75 high schools accepted the offer; Lake View, located at 4015 N. Ashland, declined it. The recent shootings there led Lake View's leaders to reopen the debate. "Lake View may not be as bad as some news reports say, but you can't say it's as safe as it should be," says Leonard Dominguez, Daley's deputy mayor for education. "All we ask is that people try the metal detectors. Logistical problems can be worked out. Where there's a will, there's a way."

But the school's leaders say the metal detectors would offer a false sense of security while being troublesome and costly to operate. "First of all, let me emphasize that neither shooting took place inside the school," says Donna Macey, Lake View's principal. "Having said that, let me add that you can sneak a gun into a building even with metal detectors. If you think metal detectors are a panacea, you're in for a rude awakening."

What's surprising is that the issue arose at Lake View. The school offers college-credit courses in art, math, and science (its art program is considered one of the area's most innovative). The school has no academic requirements for admission, but it has a fairly good reputation. At least half of Lake View's students come from the immediate area; the rest are selected by lottery from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants. The top student among 1991 graduates, Karen Morgan, is now a freshman at the University of Chicago, and this year's valedictorian, Marc Siciliano, is weighing offers from Ivy League schools.

In addition, Lake View is a relatively orderly school; there have been no recent reports of serious violence within the building. Nevertheless, Macey recognizes that it has a "gang presence." "No school in the city is safe from the influences of the evil people in the community, and we are no exception," she says. "The gangs recruit young kids; that's a fact of life."

Lake View's biggest rivalries are between black and Hispanic gangs. Neighbors have complained of fights and gang-initiation ceremonies near the school. "The police tell me that the December 8 shooting was itself a gang retaliation for the theft of a car radio," says Macey. "It was rumored that a person from one gang stole the radio from a rival gang member's car."

Ironically, neither the assailant nor the victim in the December 8 incident were Lake View students. They did, however, belong to gangs who had members in the school. Lieutenant Thomas Byrne, who heads the police department's school-patrol unit, says the shootings involved members of the Latin Eagles and Gangster Disciples.

Within an hour after the December 16 shooting police caught the gunman a few blocks from the school. "We recovered four guns and one sawed-off shotgun," says Byrne. "We believe the kid who was shot also had a gun. We believe we found [his] gun 50 feet from where the victim was found. It was on a windowsill outside the school."

In the aftermath of the second shooting, Macey and her staff had to calm the school's students. "I went out and found the victim lying on the sidewalk," says Macey. "He had been shot in the thigh and he was bleeding. It was a frightening moment. I didn't know if this was the prelude to a drive-by shooting or what. It was at the start of the school day, and we had dozens of kids coming into the building. Kids were crying and very upset, and while our nurse helped the student who was shot, the rest of us ushered the others into the school where they could be safe. Later that day our counselors and social workers were here to counsel the kids. The police sent in extra patrols, but we kept the school schedule normal. The more regular the schedule, the greater the sense of security. If it looks like we don't know what we're doing, it confuses and upsets the students."

Coincidentally, the shooting came within a few weeks of a decision by Lake View's local school council not to install the metal detectors. "We decided there were too many constraints," says Macey. "If you post a metal detector at the front, we still have ten other first-floor entrances to deal with. You can't chain them shut because of the fire code. So there's nothing to stop a kid from letting in another kid with a gun. Even if the mayor gave us ten metal detectors, you have to ask who will operate them? We don't have any available teacher's aides. Those positions were eliminated in the last round of budget cuts."

Other schools have installed metal detectors, Dominguez says, citing as an example Richards Vocational High School, at 5009 S. Laflin. "I went to Richards the other day and they had a teacher operating the metal detector," says Dominguez. "The detector went off when I went through and the teacher, not knowing who I was, made me go through it again. It was my keys. The point is that the machine would have stopped me from entering had I been carrying a gun."

Patrick Noonan, the principal at Richards, thanks Daley for donating the metal detectors but hesitates to recommend them for all schools. "What works for me may not work for Lake View," says Noonan. "Lake View is two or three times larger than my school. We have only three entrances, and they have at least ten. We are surrounded by a high fence, they aren't. I can control the flow of students at all times, maybe they can't. Also, I was fortunate enough to have some discretionary funds left in my budget to pay teachers to sit there and operate the metal detector. I may not have that money next year."

Daley has asked the Board of Education to assign security guards to the schools to operate the metal detectors. But the board pleads poverty.

Still, many of the principals who have requested the metal detectors admit they might not be able to use them. "We know our metal detectors come with problems," says Arthur Cervinka, principal at Mather High School, 5835 N. Lincoln Avenue. "I went through the metal detectors at O'Hare Airport and activated them with the buttons on the Mather school jacket. Spiral notebooks and compasses that a student carries in a book bag, or instruments carried in an instrument case might all set off a metal detector. We could have our students waiting in line for hours. Then you have to ask yourself, who is going to be the female police officer to frisk the girls who set off the detector? And if the kids refuse to be frisked, where are we going to hold them while we wait for police? We will try the detectors, and if they work we will keep them. But if they take away from our main purpose of teaching, we will get rid of them."

On January 5, Lake View's LSC held a public meeting to discuss security. Nearly 100 people attended, some of whom asked that metal detectors be installed. "I don't see how you can afford not to use them," one man said. "Are you waiting for someone to die?"

Other people demanded that the school discontinue its open-campus program, which allows students to leave the building during their 40-minute lunch period. Macey and other LSC members defended the open-campus setup and reiterated their opposition to metal detectors. "You can't expect students to become well-disciplined adults if you continue to impose all outside discipline on them," Macey said. "They have to figure out how to spend their 40 minutes of lunchtime without someone telling them. We want them to learn how to make decisions."

Most members of the audience supported the decision not to install metal detectors and voiced confidence in Macey and the council. Several students pleaded with parents to take more responsibility. Valentina Gamboa, a 16-year-old junior and student member of Lake View's LSC, said, "We hope to see you back again. If you were here more often, safety would be better. If parents got more involved, it would promote school spirit so kids would have pride in their school and they would be less likely to join a gang in the first place."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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