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School Safety Overkill

March 7, 2013

One of the worst by-products of the shootings in CT is the recent increase in what I consider to be absurd overreactions relative to school safety concerns. Today’s Naked Capitalism blog included a link to an article to a report in the Freerange Children blog describing an Oregon NPR broadcast describing a drill at a school where they were going to bring in helicopters to simulate the airlift of students injured by gunfire. Lenore Skenay, the Freerange blogger noted:

…while most local schools are already protected by fences, security cameras, locked doors and, at this particular one, what sounds like a part-time guard with a gun (the students worry that sometimes she is busy at the middle school) , apparently the district still feels a drill like this is prudent.

She saw this as overkill for four reasons: the chances of this kind of event are very slim; helicopters would be very unlikely to be readily available; money spent on this kind of exercise would be better spent elsewhere; and the emphasis on these kinds of shooting being an imminent threat is deeply misguided— it needlessly strikes fear into children attending school.

The Nation ran an even more frightening article about the consequences of having police in schools: it results in 7 year old students being taken to police stations in handcuffs for the kind of childish behavior that– well– 7 year olds typically engage in from time to time: having a meltdown when an art project doesn’t turn out right; getting into a shoving match with classmates; being falsely accused to stealing money… you get the idea. The article noted that students are getting used to living in an environment with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, locked doors, and police officers… and notes that none of these “safety precautions” worked in incidents where violent incidents occurred in schools. Here are some quotes from the article I find disturbing:

==>Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposed $50 million in federal grants to install more metal detectors, surveillance cameras and National Guard troops in schools…

==>President Obama ordered more police in schools

==>Across the country, from Florida and Connecticut to TennesseeIndiana and Arizona, despite tough budgetary times, municipal governments are now eagerly scrounging up the extra money for more metal detectors, surveillance cameras and armed guards in schools.

==>(Parent) Isamar Gonzalez was arrested for being in her high school early to meet with a teacher and… her principal, Mark Federman, was arrested when he tried to intervene.

==>The Chicago school system spends $51.4 million on security guards, but only $3.5 million for college and career coaches.

Why are we doing this to our children? Chase Madar, the author of the article doesn’t think it is necessary:

The over-policing of our schools is particularly grotesque because it’s so unnecessary. All schools need order and all students need self-discipline (as do adults), but putting police and metal detectors in a school often just adds another layer of violent chaos to an already tough situation. In my own policy research on school security overkill in New York City, I’ve found plenty of high schools, and not in the fancy parts of town, that do just fine without police or scanners.

In fact, they do better than fine: one report I coauthored with advocates from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that schools without police or metal detectors actually get significantly better educational results (higher graduation rates, lower truancy) than their heavily policed counterparts.

So why aren’t these low-impact schools being held up as models? Why don’t City Hall and the New York City Department of Education seem to want to know about these more effective—not to mention cheaper—models? Alas, despite a steady fifteen-year nationwide drop in crime, politicos continue to score points with voters by showing that they aren’t afraid to crack down on children, especially the working-class black and Latino youth who bear most of the brunt of these policies. The psycho-racial-political dynamics are pretty much the same throughout the country.

Madar notes that Columbine HS, the site of the 1999 massacre that first brought school safety to the attention of the general public, no longer has metal detectors or armed police. Instead they work to have clear and open communication with students. Unfortunately, improving communication between adults and high school students— or between political parties for that matter— doesn’t win votes. ACTION is important. Doing SOMETHING. So we get more “good guys with guns”, more cameras, more metal detectors… and less freedom.  Near the end of the piece, Madar writes:

This response to the Newtown massacre is of a piece with a developing post-9/11 American national-security-lockdown mentality—the belief that an armed response will solve most of our problems, domestic and foreign. It’s a habit of thought that leads not figuratively but quite literally to a police state. The over-policing of schools is just a part of the increasing militarization of the police nationwide, which in turn fuels the smoldering paranoia that drives civilians to stock up on AR-15s and the like.


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