The Case for Limiting School Security
Human empathy can succeed where security systems fail
"We have to harden our schools, not soften them up," President Donald Trump said at a White House event days after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
There is no evidence to support such an assertion. I know, because I’ve looked for it. I have spent close to a decade studying various aspects of American high school life, culminating last year in a book that questions whether high-security schools do students more harm than good. In Rhetoric, Embodiment, and the Ethos of Surveillance: Student Bodies in the American High School, I make a controversial suggestion: We need to lessen school security.
We may think that more metal detectors, more sniffing dogs, and more armed police officers will keep students safer. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the STOP School Violence Act last week by a 407-10 vote to provide training and funding for violence prevention. The bill doesn’t allow funds to be used to provide firearms, but could fund threat assessments and crisis-intervention teams. A similar Senate bill is awaiting a vote.
The darker side of all these safety measures is that they conflate schools with prisons, engendering the school climate with fear, distrust, paranoia—and, yes, violence.
There is a "pervasive sense that the community is demanding secure buildings, that we must act," Bennett A. Fierman, a psychologist and strategic planner in Ohio, told me in an interview for my recent book. But Fierman, who consults with school districts on planning and construction of new school buildings, also concedes that despite all parents’ wishes to guarantee student safety, "it’s fundamentally impossible."
A school board member who wished to remain anonymous also acknowledged in an interview that security and surveillance initiatives are "more of a PR move than anything else." They might make parents feel better, but don’t necessarily lessen students’ vulnerability to violence.
It’s understandable that parents and educators want to do everything possible to secure school buildings and protect children. But it is ridiculous to believe that anyone capable of carrying out a mass shooting would be deterred by locked doors or police presence. The majority of mass shooters are mentally ill, according to data tracked by the Los Angeles Times. Mass murderers are also more likely to commit suicide than other homicide offenders. They believe they have nothing to lose.
Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut had visual surveillance and secure systems for entry access, as well as teachers who had been trained to protect students in a worst-case scenario. It was properly locked on Dec. 14, 2012—the day shooter Adam Lanza killed 26 people, 20 of them elementary school children. Lanza simply shot the lock off the door for immediate and unfettered access to everyone inside. The school’s safety systems were all fully functioning, and teachers did all they could to protect students. The results were catastrophic.
Eight months later, Michael Brandon Hill, another disturbed man with another assault rifle, slipped into a Georgia elementary school. In a conversation that was recorded by 911 operators, school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff essentially talked Hill out of using the gun. She told him that everything was going to be alright, that she loved him, and that she was proud of him. When he admitted he wanted to kill himself, she told him about her own suicide attempt a year earlier. She even offered to shield him from police fire with her own body if he would walk out peacefully. Roughly 20 minutes later, Hill gave up and lay down.
After so many cases in which security systems failed, human empathy succeeded.
It would be too simplistic, of course, to suggest that we should swap technology for empathy. Every circumstance is different. We can’t count on a potential shooter like Michael Brandon Hill being willing to stop and have a conversation with an Antoinette Tuff. Every school building is filled with empathetic educators and staff who would surely do something similar if given the chance. At the scene of an attack, it’s often too late.
But it’s also true that turning our schools into maximum-security prisons, with more guns, police officers, and locks is not going to solve the problem. Both men had the same access and the same capability. One approach worked, and one failed. The one that worked, unfortunately, is a lot harder to replicate. But it may be possible if we begin to implement preventative programs early in our students’ K-12 education.
The research on these kinds of programs is fairly new, but findings already suggest that explicitly promoting a culture of empathy—early, proactively, and continuously, rather than at the moment of crisis—could prevent a great deal of school violence.
Instead of enforcing problematic zero-tolerance policies and buying expensive security technologies that aren’t foolproof in preventing violence and death, schools could instead direct more resources toward the development of restorative justice programs. These programs prioritize the acceptance of responsibility and the reparation of harm over traditional punishments. They also facilitate student-staff collaboration in cultivating peaceful and productive school environments.
Restorative justice programs are also designed to address and work with the actual threat—which is rarely a masked intruder who slips into schools under the cover of darkness. The real danger is often the troubled student in class, the one who’s been in the school district since kindergarten.
Petula Dvorak, a Washington Post columnist who was moved by Tuff and the would-be Georgia shooter, wrote that there were no funerals, not because we armed officers or teachers in schools or because we added intruder drills, but because of an act of human bravery. "America, listen to Antoinette Tuff," she wrote. "Please."
Clearly, we’re not listening. But we could. It’s too late for too many kids, but it’s never too late to try another approach.