Criminologists Say School Security Unfair
Scholars found that schools with large minority or impoverished populations have higher security measures than other schools. But, those higher security measures had nothing to do with crime, they said. “We find it disturbing that the adoption of school security is more closely related to student race and ethnicity and to socio-economic status than to actual criminal behavior,” said study co-author Aaron Kupchik, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
Their theory is based on data from the national 2005–2006 School Survey on Crime and Safety. The survey polled school administrators about security and emergency procedures at their schools.
Their paper, “Reproducing Social Inequality through School Security: Effects of Race and Class on School Security Measures,” was presented Saturday, Aug. 20, at the American Sociological Association’s 106th meeting at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.
According to their study, American elementary, middle, and high schools with large minority populations are more likely to apply measures like drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and police in schools based on the race and economic of their students rather than on the level of crime at the school.
Kupchik and Geoff Ward, assistant professor of criminology at the University of California-Irvine, studied five security measures across a sample of 2,510 public schools. Those security measures include metal detectors, surveillance cameras, full-time law enforcement officers, lock-monitored gates on school grounds, and drug-sniffing dogs.
Since the rash of school related shootings in the 1990s and the last decade nearly all high schools in America utilize these security measures to some degree regardless of their minority populations. This fact, the authors say, runs counter to the theory that only nonwhite impoverished schools implement high security, which resembles passing through airport security or prison security.
However, they find that metal detectors specifically are more likely to be found in schools with large minority populations:
“Because they are used most frequently in high-minority schools, metal detectors may stigmatize nonwhite students,” said co-author Ward in a recent ASA press release. “Furthermore, metal detectors are considered to be minimally effective and disruptive to learning environments, so they may create barriers to academic success that disproportionately affect minority students.”
According to schoolsafety.org, metal detectors are used in few schools in the nation. The school safety consultants group says that these schools usually have a history of gun or other weapons incidents.
Additionally, use of metal detectors could be in response to a high-profile school violence incident. Following these media-covered incidents parents may want a “guarantee” against violence and thus push for such measures. However, schoolsafety.org warns about the limitations of metal detectors and how they can create a false sense of security.
When it comes to school security, there are many factors and variables at play. For example, student anxiety over the possibility of being shot, stabbed, or harassed could create psychological barriers to learning. Schools and districts that are aware of the learning barriers created by metal detectors might be weighing the lesser of two evils.
Fear of litigation is another motivator in some school districts. For example a student might be injured by another student with a weapon. The injured student’s parents might file a suit against the school district. Tighter security measures might be seen as a protection against liability.
In the study the authors noted that it is easy to predict the five above security measures in elementary and middle schools based on poverty. These measures and predictors stand out in primary schools opposed to high schools because these security measures are less used in elementary and middle schools compared to high schools.
“Thus, criminalization of misbehavior begins earlier for students attending schools with concentrated poverty, potentially contributing to short- and long-term disparities in educational achievement,” said co-author Kupchik in a statement.
Schools in the Midwest, West, and South are more likely to use the five security measures than those schools in the Northeast. In general, those states are usually more punitive than Northeast states, according to the researchers.
The authors took into account student misbehavior and perceived area crime rates, which they said showed the schools with higher security were not reacting to local crime rates.
“Instead, it appears that school officials respond to a presumed correlation between minority and low-income students and violence and weapon use,” said Ward in a press release.