Under Surveillance

October 01, 1995 5 min read

Thirty-seven surveillance cameras. Six metal detectors. Five full-time police officers. Intruder-resistant gates. This may sound like your average prison, but it’s actually the newest addition to the Dallas public school system.

The $41 million Townview Magnet Center, which opened its doors in August, is state-of-the-art in many ways: It has well-equipped science laboratories, a minihospital, and a 350-seat theater, for starters. But the designers of the mammoth 2,172-student high school had something else in mind, as well--security.

“This is a school for the 21st century,’' says C.W. Burruss, the district’s director of safety and security. “The design itself reduces crime.’'

As Burruss looks out over the red-brick structure, he points to a few of its safety features: a wide-open periphery with small maple trees that will not be allowed to grow tall enough to obstruct the building; perimeter lighting that illuminates the grounds like a stadium at night to deter intruders; and gates made of 8-foot iron poles that appear impossible to scale.

“You’ve got to understand, this is the inner city--the ‘hood,’' Burruss explains, pointing across the street to a motel that he says is frequented by prostitutes. “There are people on the outside who would love to disrupt this educational activity. And that’s not going to happen.’' As he talks, voices of security officers patrolling the school grounds crackle over his portable radio.

For years now, public schools across the country--particularly urban high schools--have been making use of high-tech security devices, such as metal detectors and electronic alarms. A few newer schools have had safety features incorporated into their overall architectural designs. But Townview is one of the first to combine both--sophisticated gadgetry and design--making it, experts say, the ultimate “safe school.’'

“This represents a school’s best mechanical effort to create a safe campus for students,’' says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “The district ought to be commended for taking action.’'

Indeed, many parents, students, and outside observers praise the school system for investing so heavily in safety. But other education experts argue that housing schools in enormous structures and pouring money into high-tech gadgetry is not the answer to violence. Instead, they say, districts should look for other solutions, such as creating small schools where students can get close personal attention.

“You have to go back to basics to respond to the epidemic of violence in society in general,’' says Enola Aird, director of the Safe Start Campaign at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. “The answer to school violence is a spiritual answer, not a technological one.’'

Townview Magnet Center is the outgrowth of a 1976 court order to desegregate the Dallas public schools. The idea was to place an attractive magnet school in a poor, inner-city area with a large minority population. It was hoped that the school’s strong academic and vocational programs would attract students districtwide. But there was a problem: The district didn’t have the money to build the school. It wasn’t until 1992, when the city raised the needed funds through a bond program, that construction finally began.

Townview, so named because the Dallas skyline is visible from the school grounds, combines six of the district’s magnet programs and offers concentrations in business, education, government and law, health, and science, as well as a gifted-and-talented program. Students from throughout the district attend the school. Most are minority, and 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

No minimum grade-point average is required to attend Townview, but students must be in good academic standing. Principal Ora Lee Watson believes that making the school a safe place helps protect its academic mission and attractiveness. “We don’t want to be caught not doing everything we can,’' Watson says. “We want to be proactively involved in the safety of our students.’'

At Townview, school safety and student discipline go hand in hand. The school has a dress code and rigid behavior guidelines; any student caught carrying a weapon, for example, is automatically expelled. In addition, all students receive and must carry a photo-identification card. “Just because they’re in a magnet school doesn’t mean they won’t commit crimes,’' Watson says. “Prisons are full of bright kids.’'

In the first-floor control room, school police officer Nicholas Valenzuela trains his eyes on three television monitors mounted on the wall. Cameras placed strategically around the school transmit images to these screens. Valenzuela watches students running down stairs and fiddling with locker combinations. He sees cars entering the parking lots and two uniformed officers guarding the front entrance. The control room is monitored by a campus police officer 24 hours a day--both to protect the students and to safeguard school property.

Most parents and students say the security measures give them the feeling of protection. “I have to feel my child is safer there,’' declares Evelyn Hicks, a school advisory board member whose son attends Townview. “There are security cameras in banks and department stores, so why not build schools with security measures when crimes are being committed.’'

“It’s a very good system,’' sophomore Ken Boyer says, after passing through a metal detector. “I don’t mind because I’m not going to do anything bad.’'

But a number of Townview students don’t like the way the cameras and campus police monitor their every move. They say it makes them feel more like prisoners than students. “This whole project is a monster; it’s overkill,’' complains Adam Moomaw, a junior. “They are monitoring the honors kids. It’s a waste of time and money.’'

What most offends freshman Shannon Christopher is the photo-identification cards. “The security seems excessive,’' she says. If Burruss has his way, students next year will have to use cards with bar codes to get into the building.

Some students suggest that the technology and other security measures are essentially ineffective, that they could outsmart the system if they wanted to. “Anyone could get anything they wanted in here--guns, knives, drugs,’' one junior says. “The effort is futile.’' Townview police officers disagree, but they acknowledge that no security system is 100 percent effective.

Certainly safety experts from around the country will be watching the Townview experiment to see whether a school specifically engineered and equipped to prevent violence and crime is, in fact, safer than one that is not. Dallas administrators hope to answer that question sometime next year, following an official evaluation.

Stephens of the national school-safety center is sanguine. “The stage is set for a promising outcome,’' he says.

--Jessica Portner

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Under Surveillance