New Studies on Schools and Policing: At what cost?

My dissertation explores some of the negative spillover effects of the “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamic- a trend encompassing increasing use and severity of school discipline, increased interaction with the criminal justice system in schools, zero-tolerance policies, and public schools that look more like prisons than educational facilities. I’m interested in understanding how these measures impact students, both those students directly impacted by discipline but also those exposed to these “carceral” school environments. One specific area to look at is how police in and around schools impact student outcomes. Do cops in schools make students safer, or are there negative spillover effects of creating a more carceral school environment?

A few new publications begin to explore the relationship between policing, schools, and student outcome. Owens (2015) uses administrative data on school resource officers and federal hiring grants to show that the placement of law enforcement officers in schools gives officers more information on crime in schools and increases the likelihood of arrests for those crimes. The study also shows that these additional hires aid in drug chargers both on and of school campuses and increase crime reporting in neighborhoods. Owens’ study however does not interrogate what the impacts on student outcomes are associated with increased SRO hiring, and if anything, illuminates the effectiveness of school policing in creating “school-to-prison pipeline” dynamics. Weisburst (2019) uses data on federal grants for Community Oriented Policing Services in Texas, to show that the increasing placement of police officers in schools associated with these grants increases middle school discipline rates by 6 percent, with Black students experiencing the largest increases. These grants are also associated with a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and a 4 percent decrease in college enrollment. Legewie and Fagan (2019) use innovative data on policing surges associated with Operation Impact in New York City to show how these surges impact educational outcomes for students. Using administrative data, they show that exposure to these surges reduces test scores for Black boys, and the effect increases with age.

These studies begin to shed light on some of the distinctly negative impacts that school policing may have for educational outcomes. Specifically, these dynamics negatively impact Black students (often boys) more so than other groups, contributing to racial inequality and stratification. 

Short Abstract for “Carceral Schools & College Expectations: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Survey School Crime Supplement”

This study examines the impact of attending a “carceral school”- that is a school with metal detectors, locker checks, police or security staff, required identification badges, locked doors, and surveillance cameras- has on individual students’ expectations that they will attend college in the future. Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015, I show that visible and intrusive security measures negatively impact students’ expectations of their future educational attainment. Using  a probit model, I estimate that metal detectors and locker checks are associated respectively with a significant -0.026 and -0.017 marginal effect on a student’s expectation of graduating from a four-year college in the future, while controlling for achievement, race and ethnicity, gender, age, private or public school, household income level, and time. I then survey the literature on the school-to-prison pipeline, school security, and racial identity and schooling to theorize that three channels contribute to this negative effect: the crowding out of college preparatory resources, internalized negative feedback and stereotype threat, and developing perceptions of injustice with regards to school security. This finding illustrates an important negative spillover effect of increasing school security in regards to student’s expectations of educational attainment.

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.

Abstract of My First Dissertation Essay: How Carceral Schools Impact College Expectations

Title: The Impact of “Carceral Schools” on Student Expectations of Going to College: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Survey School Crime Supplement

This essay examines the impact that “carceral schools”- which are public high schools in the United States with prison-like environments- have on student expectations of going to and completing college in the future. A carceral school is defined as a school that takes on prison-like characteristics including police or security in schools, the use of metal detectors, and the use of other forms of electronic surveillance and monitoring of students. These schools have emerged in the United States alongside the “school-to-prison pipeline” trend, embodied by increasing use of school security measures, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and reliance on the juvenile criminal justice system for school discipline. The impacts of these trends are distinctly racialized, and disproportionately impact minority students in higher-poverty, urban schools. In this essay, I ask whether carceral school security measures negatively influence students’ expectations of whether or not they will continue onto higher education after high school. Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement, I investigate how attending a school that embodies the “universal carceral apparatus” negatively impacts student expectations that they will go to college, illuminating an important negative spillover effect of carceral school security measures. In my preliminary research, I show that visible and intrusive carceral security measures- such as metal detectors and locker checks- have a notable negative impact on students’ expectations of achieving higher education, and I explore mechanisms for why this may be the case such as internalizing messages of criminality, holding perceptions of injustice, and resource crowding out within schools.