The School Security Paradox: What are the costs?

My dissertation research broadly focuses on the impacts of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamic in United States public schools. To me, this issue is at the crux of some of the country’s most important social issues: gun violence, racism, under-resourcing of public schools, privatization of schools, the military-industrial complex, and mass incarceration. What I am calling the “school security paradox” emerges out of the intersection of two issues shaping our public school environments: gun violence and mass shooting events most often perpetrated by lone white males, and the unfair and disproportionate use of school discipline, school security, and the juvenile criminal justice system against minority- mainly Black- students.

Most of the literature on the emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline names the 1980s War on Drugs, the Columbine shooting, and the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act as main catalysts for changes in school policies and environments. These changes include increasing reliance on school security such as metal detectors, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and the outsourcing of discipline to the juvenile criminal justice system. These reasons though beg the question: if preventing another Columbine was the motivation for creating “safer” schools via discipline and security, why is it that these policies target largely high-poverty, urban, majority non-white schools instead of the schools actually more likely to experience a mass shooting event, according to the dominate narrative?

Contending Narratives, Disparate Costs 

A quick response is to say that the high security environments of urban schools prevents mass shooting from happening there in the first place, but this argument lacks causal evidence. City Lab borrows data from a Mother Jones compiled data on mass shooting events to show that, more or less, these events are likely to occur in any town– urban to rural, poor to rich, and across racial and ethnic groups. Mass shooting events though are perpetrated by mostly white males. Gun violence occurs in urban school neighborhoods as well and the Washington Post explains how students at urban schools experience this violence at and near school, and their feelings of frustration and solidarity following Parkland.

But, these facts illuminate two contending narratives about school violence and safety.  On one hand, the lone white male perpetrator. On the other hand, mostly non-white urban schools experiencing violence from interpersonal and gang-related conflict.

These two narratives are both based in reality, but poorer urban mostly non-white schools are those most likely to actually implement zero-tolerance discipline policies alongside carceral school security measures. A meta-analysis of the impact of metal detectors in schools notes that “Although metal detectors may hold an appeal because they are viewed as a quick and visible solution to school violence, schools must also weigh evidence of effectiveness and cost when determining which youth violence prevention strategies to employ. Given the lack of clear evidence of the effectiveness of metal detectors in preventing violence as well as the significant cost, schools may wish to either incorporate metal detectors as one component of a comprehensive program, or explore alternate strategies.” (Hankin et al. 2011)

Quick, and visible. Effective at preventing violence? Unclear. What we do know however is that carceral school environments negatively impact students perceptions of themselves, including internalizing messages of criminality, and of their schools. Metal detectors are also expensive, and students may perceive this as a misallocation of resources. Unequal City documents both reaction in Chicago Public Schools.  Internalizing messages of criminality, perceptions of injustice, mistrust in school authority, and so on: these are costs imposed on students attending schools with carceral environments, all of which can negatively impact students’ long-term educational trajectory, and therefore their economic and social outcomes. Exploring “alternate strategies” would be a better approach, including investment in counseling, neighborhood resources, trauma-informed practices, and restorative justice programs for students to feel safe, cared for, and secure in their schools and communities.

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