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X-rays, metal detectors put students to a new test

At 16, Milikia Kirkley has never boarded an airplane or passed through airport security.

But she went through a similar regimen before classes Wednesday, laying her backpack flat on an X-ray conveyor belt, emptying her pockets and walking through one of two metal detectors inside her North Philadelphia high school.Kirkley and her classmates are part of an experiment in the Philadelphia School District's effort to stop students from smuggling weapons into class. The same scene is being played out in schools from New York to Chicago, according to a security specialist.

While metal detectors are nothing new, the $15,000 X-ray machines are beginning to become a commodity. Hundreds of backpacks must be searched each day in inner-city schools, said John Leverth, sales manager for Security Defense Systems Inc. in Nutley, N.J.

"It's a sorry state of affairs, but sometimes the only way you're going to check everything is by X-raying everything," said Leverth, who negotiated the X-ray machine deal with the Philadelphia school district.

Leverth said his company has sold machines to schools in Pontiac, Mich., and in Newark and Jersey City, N.J. The New York City school district bought 109 machines.

Not all big cities are going that route.

Two of California's largest school districts, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, use only hand-held metal detectors. There are no plans to install the larger X-ray machines.

In Philadelphia, school officials say the $67,000 cost is money well spent if the machines keep weapons out.

"The issue of safety is so basic, but violence, despite our best efforts, creeps into the classroom," said David Hornbeck, the school district's superintendent. "How can you learn algebra when you're worried about your safety?"

At Benjamin Franklin High School, some students had hard feelings.

"A lot of us feel like our rights have been violated," Kirkley said. "It feels like we're being searched."

Cameras are now banned in the school's classrooms, and pregnant students must inform security staff of their condition before going through the detectors.

Jim Kinney, the Philadelphia city councilman who first suggested implementing the airport-type security last fall, said it's only a matter of time before students become accustomed to the stepped-up security.

"It's a microcosm of what we should be doing on our city streets," he said. "And if it works, we'll start using them in other schools."