School Climate & Safety What the Research Says

‘High-Surveillance’ Schools Lead to More Suspensions, Lower Achievement

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 21, 2021 5 min read
New research suggests such surveillance systems may increase discipline disparities.

As school shootings crop up once again on school campuses this spring, school leaders may be tempted to tighten security and surveillance measures as they reopen after months of remote instruction.

But new research suggests schools that tighten security and surveillance in response to shootings or other acts of violence may worsen long-term discipline disparities and academic progress, particularly for Black students.

Schools that maintain the closest watch on students have significantly higher suspension rates and lower math performance than schools that use a lighter touch, according to new research released at the annual American Educational Research Association conference earlier this month. The findings also suggest a high-surveillance culture at school can make it harder for educators to implement strategies like restorative justice intended to reduce discipline disparities for students of color.

Jason Jabbari, a data analyst for the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, and Odis Johnson, an education professor and the executive director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, used federal longitudinal data to look at surveillance and its effects on more than 16,000 students in 750 high schools nationwide.

In the schools studied, surveillance took many forms: structural, such as having security cameras and metal detectors; random drug tests, wand sweeps, and dog sniffs for contraband; and barring students from leaving campus for lunch. But researchers also noted schools with strict dress codes or uniforms, those that required clear book bags, and identification badges for students and staff.

Based on those practices, researchers divided the pool of schools into thirds. A 10th grader who attended one of the third of schools with the highest levels of surveillance was significantly more likely to be suspended at least once by the end of high school and had significantly lower math achievement test scores by 12th grade than a peer in one of the least-controlling third of schools. Moreover, students who graduated from these schools where security sweeps and metal detectors were common, proved significantly less likely to enroll and persist in college than were students in schools with lower levels of surveillance.

The findings build on more than a decade of research suggesting school climate can suffer and students tend to feel less safe in schools with highly visible surveillance, such as metal detectors.

“A lot of these social control mechanisms don’t have a clear problem that they’re trying to address, or it’s a nebulous problem, like school shootings, which are extremely rare. They’re not put in place because of a specific incident, but because of general fears, and whether or not they even address those fears is unclear,” said Samantha Viano, an assistant professor of education at George Mason University, who studies school discipline but who was not part of the study. The study’s findings raise questions, she said, about “how do you change the attitude of what schools should look like? … These security mechanisms are just more about control than about creating the kind of atmosphere that we want for students.”

Greater burden falls on Black students

And these consequences fell disproportionately on Black students, who were more than four times more likely than white students to attend a school with the highest level of surveillance.

Those findings align with previous research. One landmark study, using restricted federal data on school security measures released after school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., found that the movement toward highly intensive school security and surveillance was driven by high-profile shootings like Sandy Hook and another in Columbine High School in Colorado 22 years ago this week, which took place in mostly white suburban schools. However, the study found schools that served mostly students of color have been more likely than suburban schools to use the most intensive security measures in response to the school-security push.

Across all kinds of schools, but particularly in the most tightly monitored schools, Jabbari and Johnson found Black boys and girls were significantly more likely than students of other races to be suspended. Once researchers controlled for the level of surveillance in their schools and the associated increase in suspensions and drop in test scores, Black students were as likely as students of other races to attend college.

More-intensive school security can also lead to greater racial disparities in school arrests. In separate research also released at AERA, Grace Ha Eun Kim, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed arrest rates from more than 92,000 schools in the federal civil rights data collection for 2013-14. She found that in schools of all grade levels, school arrests increased when there were more school resource officers on campus. However, Black students saw a significantly higher increase in arrests from school resource officers than white students did; arrests of Black students increased twice as fast as white students in high schools, and more than three times as fast in middle schools. While using older data, the findings suggest that bringing more police officers into schools could increase the risk of a fatal confrontation between a student and police officers investigating on campus, as happened in a Knoxville, Tenn., high school earlier this month.

Surveillance ‘antithetical’ to restorative justice

It makes sense that schools where students frequently misbehave or those that are generally chaotic or disorderly would tighten surveillance, but Jabbari and Johnson found that students in high-surveillance schools were more likely to be suspended, regardless of individual misbehavior or even general disruption in a school. (The researchers identified the frequency of individual student misbehavior, such as absenteeism, as well as overall campus disorder—such as fights and robberies, drug and alcohol use, racial tensions and bullying, and disrespect or abuse of teachers.)

As of 2019, at least 30 states have enacted laws requiring schools to implement alternatives to exclusionary discipline, including restorative justice, in which students who break rules meet with those harmed by their behavior to decide appropriate ways to make amends.

But Jabbari warned that heavy surveillance systems can make it harder to create a culture for more holistic discipline practices.

“When we look at this research, it does show that if you build it, you will use it,” Jabbari said. “If you have the security guards, if you have the metal detectors and the sweeps and all of these things, you know, schools do tend to use them. I’m not saying that these [surveillance] structures can’t coexist with a different philosophy on how students and teachers can come to a reconciliation, but I do think there’s some part of it that that seems antithetical.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘High-Surveillance’ Schools Lead to More Suspensions, Lower Achievement

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