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De Blasio's gun violence forum spurs questions on school metal detectors

The town hall for high school students got testy as Mayor Bill de Blasio scolded speakers for repeatedly asking about the devices used on some campuses.

Picketers chanted "Let the youth speak" outside a students-only forum in Manhattan on Thursday, March 8, 2018. Inside, Mayor Bill de Blasio scolded speakers who questioned the metal-detector policy in New York City. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

A students-only forum aimed at empowering young people got testy Thursday as Mayor Bill de Blasio scolded several speakers in midtown Manhattan who repeatedly questioned the metal-detector policy in New York City schools instead of focusing on his and his wife’s questions.

De Blasio — who noted that “youth are leading the way” after last month’s Parkland, Florida, shooting — chafed at Thursday’s “town hall with high school students on gun violence” when several participants kept bringing up the detector issue, after he said that screenings were sometimes necessary to avert violence.

At one point, his wife, Chirlane McCray, had asked the students what behavioral and mental-health services they wanted.

A Canarsie, Brooklyn, schoolboy said he wanted more social workers and counselors and said: “Metal detectors and frequent searches are effective in avoiding tragedy, although feeling accepted and comfortable in school is the best remedy.” De Blasio responded sarcastically: “That was a very good speech, by the way.”

He told a girl from a Chelsea school who objected to a “scanning, scanning, scanning” mentality: “I want to know if you wanted to answer the question about mental health or not.”

Students at about 90 of 1,500 schools must pass through the metal detectors daily, and all students citywide are subject to unannounced scanning depending on security threats analyzed by the NYPD and Department of Education.

At the two-hour open forum, which drew more than 100 attendees, student critics of the policy said that metal detectors tended to place an undue burden on black and Latino students, made students feel unwelcome and criminalized at school, and forced students to wait on long lines before heading in to learn.

But Mark Rampersant, the city Department of Education’s security director, said decisions were not based on race but on an assessment of the likelihood of violence in a school.

“If there’s something in that particular building, we are going,” he said, adding: “It’s not about color . . . Absolutely nothing to do with color.”

Not all students wanted to talk only about metal detectors: some asked for closer relationships with school security guards; others wanted fewer cops in the schools. Some said they were alarmed at the prevalence of guns; one young man from Staten Island assailed the mayor’s criticism of the National Rifle Association.

De Blasio convened the forum, at the Vanderbilt YMCA in midtown Manhattan, to allow young people citywide to talk about gun violence. Youths, de Blasio noted, have spoken out loudly in favor of gun control, after 17 people were killed in the Florida high school shooting.

De Blasio said students who participate in this month’s planned nationwide student walkout would receive amnesty as long as they don’t cut school before and return inside right after.

Students at the forum who sneaked in protest signs — colored cardboard folders with anti-scanner messages inside — were admonished by an official to put the placards away.

But outside, picketers chanted on 47th Street: “Let the youth speak!” De Blasio was not there.

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