According to a new book from Vanderbilt University Professor Torin Monahan, an abundance of security measures doesn’t always translate to a safer school.
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The efforts of school districts across the country to ramp up security measures in an attempt to make schools safer learning environments could be an exercise in futility, according to a new book from Vanderbilt University Professor Torin Monahan.
In the book, “Schools under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education,” Monahan argues that security cameras, school resource officers and zero-tolerance policies for drugs and violence have little impact on deterring crime and may actually make students feel less safe.
The book, which pulls together research from various authors, covers some of the biggest school districts in the country including New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Phoenix. Monahan said he got the idea for a book on school security while doing work for the unified school district in Los Angeles.
The fundamental goal of the book, according to Monahan, was to look at the various impacts of surveillance and other security measures on schools, students and teachers. Generally speaking, Monahan says that schools are one of the safest places for children to be, citing statistics which show that an average of 17 kids die from murder or suicide in schools in year, compared to an average of 1,500 children who die each year as a result of abuse or neglect.
That being said, when you look at the data of violence at schools that have CCTV cameras and resource officers, the fact is that those facilities are not safer than ones without, according to Monahan.
“I thought it was particularly interesting that we are investing all of these resources under the assumption that they are going to have some demonstrable effect or benefit,” he said.
Kenneth Trump, president of consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services and former member of the Division of Safety and Security for Cleveland Public Schools, refutes the professor’s argument.
“Suggesting that reasonable, balanced security measures does not deter crime or contribute to safer environment may make good Ivory Tower academic theory, but it lacks common sense and any understanding of the safety challenges facing schools and other societal organizations today,” he said. “Security measures are present throughout our society: In shopping centers, recreational facilities, entertainment complexes, grocery stories, corporate offices and many other places adults and kids visit on a daily basis. Persons responsible for safety in these venues must take reasonable risk reduction measures. Why should we hold our schools, which house our most valuable resources (our children), to a lower standard?”
Monahan said that researchers also found varying degrees of security measures being implemented across socioeconomic lines, with more invasive forms of security being performed in low income or urban schools and not in suburban or rural settings.
“By and large, in urban schools, we see much more invasive forms of screening,” Monahan said. Pat down searches, metal detectors, drug dogs, urine tests, those kinds of things we may consider to be more invasive because their physically manifesting. In suburban and rural schools, you see a lot more discreet surveillance. You have fewer metal detectors, you have surveillance, but it’s from a distance, it doesn’t require that you do anything.”
One security measure that has become common among many schools, however, is the use of school resource officers. According to Monahan, nearly 68 percent of all middle and high schools now utilize SROs, which he indicated has opened the door to a whole new set of security issues.
“(The use of SROs) has had an effect in that any infraction that students are guilty of they tend to get arrested for now, where previously they might have received detentions or suspensions or those kinds of things,” the professor said. “Some of the things, in my mind, are ridiculous like not relinquishing a cell phone might be grounds for arrest, stepping out of a security screening queue could be grounds for arrest. So, it’s not necessarily violent events that students are being arrested for, but minor events as well.”
Despite the idea that a few questionable arrests of students may occur each year in schools, Trump doesn’t think that the problem is widespread. “While there certainly have been anecdotal cases of questionable arrests of students in schools, the vast majority of school police officers are not arresting kids for not having a hall pass. The vast majority of school-based officers work well with students,” he said. “Well-trained SROs and well-designed SRO programs are those in which the police roles in enforcing criminal laws is distinguished from the school administrators' role in administering disciplinary consequences for students who break school rules. When we see questionable arrests, the first thing we typically look at it is the officer's training, the quality of relationship between the officer and school administration, and the written agreements (or absence of ) between school and police administrators in which roles and responsibilities are delineated.”
Monahan added that some of the chapters in the book deal with the abuse of students by SROs and other security guards in the form of sexual harassment and using cameras for voyeuristic purposes.
Trump argues that most school guards and administrators simply do not have the time to spy on students, due to limited staffing and an abundance of responsibilities.
“Few school officers or administrators have the luxury of being able to sit down during the school day, much less to sit down and play with cameras to ‘spy on students.’ They are too busy dealing with the academic, disciplinary, supervisory, and other issues unfolding throughout each school day,” he said.
According to Monahan, schools that really want to create a safer environment need to take a step back to determine if the steps they’ve taken with security measures are actually for the greater good.
“I think what administrator or others implementing these (security) systems need to ask up front are: What are the specific problems they are intended to solve? And if security systems are intended to score political points or to show parents something is being done or to make money, then all those things are being met, but if the goal is to make students safer, then I think we need to be honest with ourselves that that is not necessarily happening,” he said.
In his experience, Trump also believes that technology alone cannot be depended on to keep students safe. “Schools must take a balanced and comprehensive approach to school safety. Any equipment is only as effective as the weakest human link behind the equipment. The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly-alert school staff and student body,” he said. “Security technology can, however, be one piece of a comprehensive program. Security technology must be viewed as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, a more comprehensive school safety program.”