War is often thought of as a foreign concept, one that does not ever reach American soil. But, there is a constant battle that America’s youth in destitution must face – violence. This violence exists as a duality – organized due to gangs and yet chaotic because not all violence is gang-related. Naturally, the American public demands safety for its next generation, especially in schools. Facing this demand, administrators and politicians must establish order through policing. Yet, this struggle is not over how to defeat a foreign foe, but over America’s future. Without special care, lives could be lost forever, not just by means of bullets, but through mass incarceration.

This raises a question with a complex answer: how much policing is needed for schools? Policing, in this context, not only includes the physical manifestation of policing – security officers and police – but also the policies that drive the framework of law enforcement. Within this massive landscape are two general camps: those who argue that policing has been ineffective and has been taken too far, and those who argue that the present form of policing is necessary and helpful. By exploring both sides of this debate, some semblance of an answer may be found. Indeed, both sides desire to help, and thus both offer their own solutions. Neither side can be neglected, because doing so would neglect America’s youth.

The Students’ Perspective

This question – how much policing is needed – might appear to have a straight-forward answer: more police must surely mean more security, and therefore a better learning environment.  However, according to several high school graduates in New York, the situation is not so simple.

The HPR sat down with Miguel, a graduate of August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to talk about his experience with school policing. When Miguel was a high school student in the early 2000s, August Martin had the reputation of a “jail school” – a school where students were treated like inmates, and where there was a constant feeling of danger between students. Miguel recounted that in between classes, “the hallways would fill up… For those fifteen minutes, everything went down. You had drug deals, stabbings – it was so compact no one knows. You just see someone [stab] somebody up stupid fast and walk away… I once caught two kids [assaulting] a teacher.”

The August Martin administration and the New York State Board of Education were tasked with restoring order and constructing a safe learning environment within the school. They began by implementing airport-level security: bag checks, metal detectors, and pat downs. Due to the large presence of gang affiliations within the student population, certain gang-associated colors – red, blue, and gold – were banned from the school.

But Miguel recounted a sort of cycle which seemed to occur in response to new rules and increased security measures. Students would find ways to circumvent rules, the administration would establish new ones, and the cycle would repeat itself. “We later on had a rule that we couldn’t [open] up the windows… At times, people would come from the outside to our school, they would know what classroom someone was in… and they would just throw a blade [knife] or something through the window.” Despite the introduction of metal detectors and stricter rules, students always found ways to circumvent the system. Students would open back doors for gang members to assault specific students, often simply in response to minor verbal altercations. From Miguel’s account, and from those of other students in equally hazardous situations, it would appear that security in schools is often ineffective.

However, some students’ views of policing in schools tell a different narrative. Hillcrest High School offers an interesting case study. The school was once considered one of the worst schools in New York City, facing myriad problems like gang violence and drug abuse. Since metal detectors and a large team of security personnel were introduced to Hillcrest, the school has made a comeback, even earning a National Blue Ribbon Award for its progress.

Soraya Alli, a graduate of Hillcrest High School and current student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the HPR of her experience at Hillcrest: “The students from Hillcrest typically face some form of personal and financial circumstances, coming from low-income backgrounds.” According to numerous studies, low-income youth are exposed to violence at greater rates than their more affluent peers. The mental toll of this violence is immense; students from low-income backgrounds face high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

Although Alli’s High School was never as dangerous as August Martin High School, violence was still a common occurrence. But, she says it was the metal detectors and x-ray machines which made students feel safer. As she explained, “No guns or knives could be brought into the school.” Furthermore, because of a comprehensive security team, attendance seemed to have greatly improved. The “school security team and deans would do something called ‘sweeping,’ which was basically…getting them [the students] out of the halls and into a sort of detention room,” deterring students from skipping class.

There appears to be a conflict: in some of the worst schools in New York, increased policing did not resolve much, but in similar schools, it led to drastic improvements.

So, is increased policing the key to safer schools or not?

The Researchers’ Perspective

Researchers have conducted studies on security programs like the ones implemented in Miguel and Alli’s schools. As a result of this research, metal detectors and x-ray machines have come under heavy scrutiny for their ineffectiveness at diminishing violence.

One study, conducted in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, found that in addition to the ease of bypassing metal detectors, there are additional drawbacks to their implementation, the most important of which is cost. As the study notes, “if funding sources for specialists to operate the metal detectors decrease or disappear, the entire security plan may become unworkable.” Since school funding is often cut in times of economic decline, it is difficult to rely on security teams as the central safety provider. This is especially problematic considering not all states’ formulas for the allocation of funds specifically target schools with the greatest student need. Thus, it is often the case that the schools which are most in-need of increased security cannot afford it.

Another study, conducted by the American School Health Association, found that metal detectors “do not reduce the risk of violent behavior.” Furthermore, they also “may detrimentally impact students’ perception of safety.” While, of course, metal detectors and the like do not negatively impact all students’ perception of safety, Alli’s testimony does bring up an interesting perspective on this issue: if students believe they are unsafe, then perhaps they will act as if they exist in an unsafe environment. Increased paranoia and distrust of peers and others can breed violence. At the very least, it is proven that decreased perceptions of safety lead to worse academic performance.

But to effectively understand, and change, the current state of policing in schools, it is vital to understand it at the policy level.

Zero Tolerance Policies

The most prevalent policy concerning security within schools is “Zero-Tolerance.” As defined by the American Psychology Association, it is “a philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context.” Hence, the program is centered around providing zero tolerance to any transgression.

Proponents of the program argue that this policy benefits the school system. Because of its implementation, the community knows that the school is cracking down on “troublemakers.” In 2005, the American public supported this program overwhelmingly; 70% of teachers and 68% of parents supported the initiative so long as it specifically targeted troublemakers.” These rates did not dip drastically when the initiative was applied to smaller transgressions.

But it is difficult to say that the public remains as supportive of the zero tolerance policy. With the expansion of mass media via the internet, harsh outcomes come to light. In one case, a student was suspended for using a knife to slice an apple for a health project presentation in school. Many administrators have been vocal against zero tolerance, citing a more progressive approach as superior. Such an approach would involve more tolerance and collaboration between students, faculty, and security. For instance, programs like MyTeachingPartner have emphasized inclusionary practices. Instead of immediately disciplining students when they act out, this progressive approach advocates talking to students and emotionally connecting with them to prevent future transgressions.

Such progressive approaches have been notably promoted by Mo Canady, a former police officer of 25 years and the Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Canady has been interviewed by multiple publications as a top expert in the field of public security in schools. When interviewed by “The Know It All” podcast, he said that what matters when it comes to improving school safety is training and “having the right person.” Many students in impoverished neighborhoods have faced trauma, as Soraya Alli accounted, and in Canady’s view, it takes patience to ameliorate such divisions.

In his “The Know It All” interview, Canady recounts one instance where there was a female student who was “throwing chairs” and was “really out of control.” As per zero tolerance policies in other school districts, this student would have been suspended. But, because of the compassion of the school resource officer who talked to her, the school discovered that she was being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. According to Canady, because of the SRO’s training, a sexual predator was taken to justice and a “student received the help she needed.”

Securing America’s Future

With students, school administrators, members of the public all debating how to best prepare the next generation, the issue of school safety becomes controversial. Students living on the front lines of this debate vary in their view of security. But perhaps the main defining difference is the level of compassion each student received from their schools. Miguel saw police not as community figures, but as enforcers. Alli saw security as a mix of these two, and she witnessed some officers “abusing their power simply because they [had] it,” harassing students who were 45 seconds late to class, while others attempted to connect with students and build genuine relationships. As alluded to by Canady, it is perhaps this police–student connection that is most vital. Without this connection, policies like zero tolerance, and other mechanisms, like metal detectors, are not truly effective.
So perhaps the best way to police schools, according to research and experts, does not necessarily correlate with increasing the presence of police and metal detectors. Schools are the place in which America’s next generation learn not just arithmetic, but how to act and contribute in a society. Hence, compassion and community must be placed first, not just because they lead to safer schools, but because they lead to a more compassionate generation.

Image Source: Flickr/neapr

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