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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Fostering Safe Learning Environments

Strict security measures have a poor track record for building trust.

The horrific events that transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last year provoked intense feelings of anger, sadness, and bewilderment. One policymaker commented that the Newtown shootings are "the school community's 9/11" (Rundquist, 2013).
It's understandable that after this tragedy, many state legislatures and school districts are considering whether to implement strict security measures in schools—metal detectors, surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass, locked gates, and law enforcement officers. As a law professor who's recently studied the extent of such measures in schools, I believe that before legislatures and administrators invest their limited funds in these tactics, they should consider three things.
First, strict security measures have a poor track record for fostering the positive, caring learning climate needed to develop resilient children. In fact, such measures can erode school cultures and relationships needed to develop safe learning environments.
Second, low-income and minority students are disproportionately subjected to strict security measures. Such disparities may increase as policymakers funnel more school funds into purchasing security equipment and personnel.
Third, relying on security devices that don't address the root causes of conflict and violent behavior in schools may keep schools from using resources to support alternative measures that do address underlying issues. Let's look at what research—and students in schools with tight security—say about how heightened security measures affect school culture.

Do Strict Security Measures Promote Safety?

Education scholars maintain that the most important ingredient in establishing a safe school is the bond of trust between members of the school community (Noguera, 2001). Strict security measures, however, create a barrier between students and educators that sours students' attitudes, causes discord, and harms trust (Hirschfield, 2010). Their use often sends a message to students that they aren't to be trusted, that they stand accused.
A recent New York Times article described the effects a newly installed metal detector had on students in a high school for troubled teenagers. The first time one student saw the machines, she didn't feel protected; she wanted to run. "When I came here last year," this girl told the security guard, "I remember one thing: This is family, and that makes me feel safe." Another student revealed that the machines "add[ed] to [his] stress and isolation." A longtime teacher commented, "The glue in this building is love, and the [metal detectors] trespass on that" (Powell, 2012).
Another study found that students in schools armed for security reported feelings of danger and disillusionment. Students whom researcher Jen Weiss (2010) interviewed said they felt "consistently watched [and learned] to distrust, hide from, and avoid authority figures."
Many studies question whether security measures reduce school crime at all (Blosnich & Bossarte, 2011; Hankin, Hertz, & Simon, 2011); and some researchers maintain that strict security measures increases student disorder and crime (Beger, 2003). One study of 7,000 students found that schools that relied on such measures experienced more disruption, crime, and violence than schools that did not use such tactics (Mayer & Leone, 1999). Even strong supporters of strict security concede that it cannot prevent all acts of violence in schools (National School Safety and Security Services, 2012).

Are There Worse Effects for Low-Income and Minority Students?

Strict security measures are applied disproportionately to low-income and minority students. Using data from the Department of Education's 2009–10 School Survey on Crime and Safety, I researched whether schools serving higher percentages of low-income students and minority students were more likely to rely on strict security measures than other schools. I took into account factors that might influence a school administrator's decision to adopt strict security measures, including the number of violent incidents; threats of physical attack; possession of a weapon, illegal drugs, or alcohol; and theft and vandalism that occurred at school during the year. I also took into account the frequency of occurrences relating to racial tension, bullying, sexual harassment, and other events connected with discipline. Even after accounting for all these factors, the odds of adopting strict security measures were much higher for schools serving low-income students and minority students (Nance, in press).
I believe that using tight security measures hurts all students, but the disproportionate use of those measures with low-income minorities is particularly harmful. Already there exist lower levels of trust between minority students and educators (Flanagan, Cumsille, Gill, & Gallay, 2007), so applying strict security measures at schools serving these students may harm the climate in a particularly acute way. As a white educator teaching low-income minority students in a school that relied on a variety of strict security measures, I had to work hard to overcome barriers of mistrust.
Some social scientists are concerned that subjecting low-income minority students to strict security perpetuates social inequalities. They believe schools that focus primarily on custody and control deprive their students of quality educational experiences that more affluent white students typically enjoy (Wacquant, 2001). Further, rather than making a young person resilient, experiencing an intense, high-surveillance environment may condition students to accept such treatment by government authorities, skewing their views on the role government should play in their lives (Kupchik & Ward, 2011).
In addition, consider the socially disturbing message the disproportionate use of strict security is likely to send students. It conveys the message that white, middle-class, and affluent students have more privacy rights and that schools trust them more than low-income and minority youth.

Alternative Approaches

Approaches not reliant on security devices that lead to truly safe schools are available. For example, schools might hire additional counselors, provide more mental health services for students, or implement programs that more effectively stem violence. Two approaches I recommend administrators consider are using restorative justice programs and strengthening the quality of relationships between educators and students.

Use Restorative Justice

Restorative justice initiatives help students recognize and confront unacceptable behavior, repair any harm students may have caused through bad choices, and build community. Through formal and informal conferences, students whose actions have hurt others listen to their victims, receive opportunities to make apologies, and resolve differences. These initiatives teach all students to express their feelings in response to hurtful behavior rather than answering it with violent acts or words. This humanizes victims and changes the dynamic among those involved (Losen & Gillespie, 2012; Mirsky, 2003, 2011).
Schools that have employed this method report positive changes in the school climate. For example, at West Philadelphia High School, formerly one of the most dangerous schools in Pennsylvania, acts of school violence decreased by 52 percent the year after implementing this program. The following year, the number of violent incidents decreased again by an additional 45 percent (Mirsky, 2011).

Strengthen Relationships

A study of school safety in the Chicago public school system concluded that even in schools serving large populations of students from high-crime, high-poverty areas, "it is the quality of relationships between staff and students and between staff and parents that most strongly defines safe schools" (Steinberg, Allensworth, & Johnson, 2011).
One of the most effective ways to strengthen relationships between educators and students is to strengthen the quality of classroom activities. Teachers who have engaging, well-planned lessons use a varied instructional approach that includes hands-on learning, have clear expectations for behavior, employ strategies that target students' individual needs, and use an empathetic approach to create a safe learning environment (Fedders, Langberg, & Story, 2013; Losen & Gillespie, 2012).
As a teacher, I quickly learned that an effective way to promote respectful behavior and safety in my classroom was to engage—and continually re-engage—my students through quality learning activities. As a first-year teacher in an urban area of concentrated poverty, I experienced many behavioral problems in my classroom. During my second year—when I relied more on varied instruction, hands-on learning activities, group work, and consistent expectations for behavior—I experienced very few behavioral problems. I believe improving my instructional strategies was the catalyst for this turnaround.
In a similar vein, it's vital that educators help all students understand that they can be successful. Students who believe the education system doesn't work for them—that no matter what they do, they won't have a chance to go to college or launch a promising career—often become disillusioned, disruptive, and sometimes dangerous. Teachers should give these students a sense of purpose and commitment and help them comprehend that the education system can help them live fulfilling lives.
This is hard to do in challenging environments in which tensions already exist. But the existence of successful schools in tense environments proves that it's possible. To illustrate, six New York City public schools serving at-risk students have successfully created safe, nurturing learning environments without using strict security measures. All these schools enjoy higher than average attendance and graduation rates, lower crime rates, and fewer school suspensions. They show respect for all members of the school community; have strong, compassionate leadership; promote open communication between students and educators; craft fair rules; and place responsibility for discipline with school officials rather than law enforcement officers (New York Civil Liberties Union, 2009).

Investing in Trust

Newtown has caused educators to deeply reconsider issues relating to school safety and violence prevention. But a difficult truth we must accept is that it's impossible for schools to ensure the safety of all our students all the time. An event as horrific as the Newtown shootings may even happen again. Rather than investing in measures that cannot prevent all violent acts from occurring, let's invest in personnel and programs that build school community, responsibility, and trust.

Beger, R. R. (2003). The "worst of both worlds": School security and the disappearing fourth amendment rights of students. Criminal Justice Review, 28(2), 336–354.

Blosnich, J., & Bossarte, R. (2011). Low-level violence in schools: Is there an association between school safety measures and peer victimization? Journal of School Health, 81(2), 107–113.

Fedders, B., Langberg, J., & Story, J. (2013). School safety in North Carolina: Realities, recommendations and resources. Retrieved from www.legalaidnc.org/public/learn/media_releases/2013_MediaReleases/school-safety-in-north-carolina.pdf

Flanagan, C. A., Cumsille, P., Gill, S., & Gallay, L. S. (2007). School and community climates and civil commitments: Patterns for ethnic minority and majority students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 421–431.

Cardner, M. R. (1988). Student privacy in the wake of T. L. O.: An appeal for an individualized suspicion requirement for valid searches and seizures in the schools. Georgia Law Review, 22, 897–947.

Hankin, A., & Hertz, M., & Simon, T. (2011). Impacts of metal detector use in schools: Insights from 15 years of research. Journal of School Health, 81(2), 100–106.

Hirschfield, P. (2010). School surveillance in America: Disparate and unequal. In T. Monahan, R. D. & Torres (Eds.), Schools under Surveillance: Cultures of control in public education (pp. 38–54). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kupchik, A. & Ward, G. W. (2011). Reproducing social inequality through school security: Effects of race and class on school security measures. Manuscript submitted for publication. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/media/kupchikward-02security.pdf.

Losen D. J., & Gillespie, J. (2012, August). Opportunities suspended: The disparate impact of disciplinary exclusion from school Los Angeles: The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/upcoming-ccrr-research/losen-gillespie-opportunity-suspended-2012.pdf

Mayer, M. J., & Leone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333–358.

Mirsky, L. (2003, May 20). SaferSanerSchools: Transforming school culture with restorative practices. Restorative Practices Eforum. Retrieved November 28, 2012, from www.iirp.edu/iirpWebsites/web/uploads/article_pdfs/ssspilots.pdf.

Mirsky, L. (2011). Building safer, saner schools. Educational Leadership, 69(1), 45–49.

National School Safety and Security Services. (n.d.). School metal detectors. Retrieved from author at www.schoolsecurity.org/trends/school_metal_detectors.html

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011. Retrieved November 28, 2012, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012002rev.pdf

Nance, J. P. (in press). Students, security, and race. Emory Law Journal.

New York Civil Liberties Union. (2009). Safety with dignity: Alternatives to the overpolicing of schools. New York: Author.

Noguera, P. A. (2001). Finding safety where we least expect it: The role of social capital in preventing school violence. In W. Ayers, B. Dohrn, & R. Ayers (Eds.), Zero tolerance: Resisting the drive for punishment in our schools (pp. 202–218). New York: New York Press.

Powell, M. (2012, September 30). In a school built on trust, metal detectors inject fear. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/nyregion/in-a-brooklyn-school-metal-detectors-inject-fear.html.

Rundquist, J. (2013). Surprise security drills coming to N.J. schools. The Star-Ledger. Retrieved from www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/01/surprise_school_security_drills.html.

Steinberg, M. P., Allensworth, E., & Johnson, D. W. (2011). Student and teacher safety in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Retrieved from http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/SAFETY%20IN%20CPS.pdf

U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Department of Education. (2002). Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_guide.pdf

Wacquant, L. (2001). Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment and Society, 3(1), 95–134.

Weiss, J. (2010). Scan this. In T. Monahan & R. D. Torres (Eds.), Schools under Surveillance: Cultures of control in public education (pp. 213–229). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

End Notes

1 I further took into account the principals' perception of crime in the area near the school, the school's location, the number of students attending the school, the region of the United States in which the school was located, and the number of low-performing students on standardized tests.

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