School Climate & Safety

Study Finds Metal Detectors More Common in High-Minority Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 29, 2011 6 min read
Eighth graders join hands with classmates during “circle time” this month in Tracy Hauser’s homeroom class at City Springs Elementary School, a P-8 charter school in Baltimore. Circle time, during which students and their teachers discuss issues of concern, is part of a holistic approach to violence prevention the school has been using for the past two years.

Minority students in a high-poverty neighborhood are more likely to pass through a metal detector on the way to class than their better-off and white peers are, even if the schools are equally safe, according to new research.

Researchers at the University of Delaware and the University of California, Irvine, based their findings on a study of nationally representative school data. They presented the study Aug. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, held in Las Vegas.

Security measures adopted from the criminal-justice arena—from metal detectors and surveillance cameras to full-time guards and drug-sniffing dogs—have proliferated in the past decade or so, particularly in secondary schools. Yet, even after accounting for the levels of crime on schools’ campuses and in the surrounding neighborhoods, the researchers found that high-poverty schools were disproportionately likely to use such security mechanisms, and that the racial makeup of the student enrollment was a powerful predictor of whether the school would use metal detectors.

“It’s not that the more violent schools get metal detectors, or even the urban schools get metal detectors—though that’s true,” said co-author Aaron Kupchik, an associate professor in sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “It’s that schools with more students of color are more likely to get metal detectors, at every level, even elementary levels.”

Ubiquitous Measures

Mr. Kupchik and Geoff K. Ward, an assistant professor of criminology, law, and society and sociology at UC Irvine, studied a representative sample of 2,720 schools from the 2005-06 federal School Survey on Crime and Safety. They found that security measures like cameras, searches and campus police have become ubiqitous in American high schools. In elementary and middle schools, the difference in types of security measures between schools with higher and lower poverty was more pronounced.

Even after controlling for student behavior, neighborhood crime, and other safety indicators, researchers found that schools with higher concentrations of poor students were more likely than their better-off counterparts to have a full-time security or policy officer, drug-sniffing dogs, locked gates in elementary schools, and metal detectors in middle school.

The percentage of minority students in a school strongly predicted whether it would use metal detectors at all grade levels.

Principal Rhonda Richetta has restored the broken security camera she found upon arriving at City Springs in 2007, but she has balked at using metal detectors or wand searches. She says the school’s violence-prevention program is more effective than such security devices.

However, all schools with highly involved parents were less likely to use metal detectors and more likely to favor a security officer on campus.

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services Inc., said the study doesn’t represent the “day-to-day reality in schools.”

While Mr. Kupchik noted that only about 10 percent of schools nationwide use metal detectors, Mr. Trump argued that students have grown up with security measures, from metal detectors to cameras, and are comfortable with them.

“It’s not radical to expect to have measures like these in our schools,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re not having these conversations about security at the mall, where these same kids are going shopping at night and on the weekends.”

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said that administrators don’t take student demographics into account when designing their security plans; they usually respond to specific violent incidents and national trends.

“Nobody is going to say we have a school and they’re all minorities and they’re poor, so we need to put more security on that building,” Mr. Domenech said.

Trend Predates Columbine

Security systems got a boost from federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and other grants following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, experts said.

“Every school now is much more security-minded than they’ve ever been, and most states require it,” Mr. Domenech said.

At the same time, he added, the “intensity of the security is very much dependent upon what experiences the school has had. You’re not going to find metal detectors in a school that has not experienced any violence or any times of students’ trying to bring weapons into the school.”

Mr. Kupchik said that trends toward more-intrusive security measures in schools had already begun in the 1990s before school shootings such as those at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in 1999, but that “Columbine was used to accelerate and to retroactively justify the trends.”

“I think it has to do with fear overall for kids and of kids,” he added. “There’s a very strong belief among school administrators that these [measures] are helpful in running the school and in keeping the students safe.”

Some evidence suggests that such stiff security measures may not be as effective as administrators think, however. In February, the Journal of School Health released an analysis of 15 years’ worth of research on metal detectors, which found there was “insufficient evidence” that their use decreased crime or violence in schools, but which did find evidence that their presence made students feel less safe.

A January 2011 study using data from the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey found that among security measures, only one, asking adults to be present in school hallways, actually decreased the amount of peer bullying in schools.

City Springs Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore is one example of an inner-city school that is trying to take a more holistic violence-prevention approach. The P-8 charter school sits amid three housing projects, and 99 percent of its 640 students, most of whom are African-American, receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Principal Rhonda L. Richetta said that when she arrived in 2007, there were daily fights on campus, regular vandalism of the halls and restrooms, and frequent soundings of fire alarms by students looking for a quick break from class. The school’s main security system was a set of cameras that Ms. Richetta found “weren’t hooked up to anything.”

“There were a lot of angry students and adults,” she recalled. “I knew I needed something to change the environment. It was not conducive to learning, and I didn’t feel I could address the academic issues unless I addressed the climate first.”

Positive Relationships

The school adopted SaferSanerSchools, a schoolwide safety program developed by the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, which focuses on building positive relationships among students and staff.

All staff members in the school, from teachers and administrators to cafeteria and janitorial workers, went through mediation training. Each homeroom class holds a “circle” at least once a day in which each student gets a chance to discuss concerns. Separate groups are called in response to behavior or other problems as they come up.

In the years since, City Springs’ climate has changed, Ms. Richetta said. Yearly suspensions are down from 86 in 2008-09 to 10 or fewer in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Fights on campus have become “nonexistent,” the principal said, though students often ask their own circles to mediate disputes.

Ms. Richetta did replace the broken security cameras, but she has rejected more visible security measures, such as metal detectors or wand searches.

“I think this is more effective,” she said, “because it’s changing behavior.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Researchers Highlight Schools’ Differences in Security Practices

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