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Handcuffing 7-Year-Olds Won't Make Schools Safer

But the Newtown massacre may lead to traumatic crackdowns.

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Safe Schools Without Police or Metal Detectors

The over-policing of our schools is particularly grotesque because it's so unnecessary. All schools need order and all students need self-discipline (as do adults), but putting police and metal detectors in a school often just adds another layer of violent chaos to an already tough situation. In my own policy research on school security overkill in New York City, I've found plenty of high schools, and not in the fancy parts of town, that do just fine without police or scanners.

In fact, they do better than fine: one report I coauthored with advocates from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that schools without police or metal detectors actually get significantly better educational results (higher graduation rates, lower truancy) than their heavily policed counterparts.

So why aren't these low-impact schools being held up as models? Why don't City Hall and the New York City Department of Education seem to want to know about these more effective—not to mention cheaper—models? Alas, despite a steady 15-year nationwide drop in crime, politicos continue to score points with voters by showing that they aren't afraid to crack down on children, especially the working-class Black and Latino youth who bear most of the brunt of these policies. The psycho-racial-political dynamics are pretty much the same throughout the country.

But there are proven, demonstrably better, ways to do school discipline. Ask Judge Steve Teske whose visionary common sense has brought down referrals to juvenile court by 70 percent in Clayton County, Georgia, by forcing schools to handle minor disciplinary infractions without handcuffs or police arrests. (In the same period in that county, serious weapons charges, like bringing guns and knives to school, have fallen by 80%—further evidence that restraining a police presence actually makes schools safer.)

For another example of the right way to respond to school violence, look no further than Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, site of the 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two heavily armed students. In response, the school made the choice not to add a phalanx of armed guards. (Columbine actually had an armed school resource officer on duty the day of the killings, and he was unable to slow, let alone stop, the carnage.)

In fact, Columbine today remains an open campus with no metal detector at the front door. Instead, its administration has worked hard to improve communications with the student body, trying to build an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Columbine parents have supported this approach for a simple reason: they don't want their children treated like criminals. Because Littleton, Colorado, is a largely affluent community with political muscle, they've been able to resist the avalanche of punitive measures that have been generated by every school massacre since the one that took place at theirs.

Other schools—particularly urban ones with working-class African American and Latino students—are not so lucky. When President Obama announced his pledge of more "resource officers" in schools, he was quick to qualify it with an "if they want them." A laudable sentiment that doesn't really reflect how things usually work on the ground.

One Brooklyn high school principal I interviewed told me of the constant pressure he experienced from higher up in the New York City Department of Education to put in a metal detector and more police personnel. Another school security success story I profiled back in 2008 has since had a metal detector rammed down its educational throat despite its immaculate disciplinary record. Now, its students are made to feel like potential criminals from the moment they arrive every morning. The logic is, in its way, all-American: crazy white kids go on shooting sprees, and then the screws tighten on Black and Latino kids.

Resisting the Axis of Tiny Handcuffs

Is there any hope of preventing the rush to put more first graders in handcuffs? Yes, but don't expect any help from the NRA, which is actively promoting a heavily armed vision of heaven on Earth in which armed guards will be everywhere, with all public space turned into an airport security line. As for Barbara Boxer, evidently she wasn't as struck as I was by the T-shirts that Sacramento's school security police made with the slogan "U Raise 'Em, We Cage 'Em" emblazoned on the image of a child behind bars. Or maybe she should talk to constituents like five-year-old arrestee Michael Davis or the seven-year-old in San Mateo whom a cop blasted in the face with pepper spray for climbing a bookshelf. It remains to be seen if the NRA and Boxer, united, can ever be defeated.

This response to the Newtown massacre is of a piece with a developing post-9/11 American national-security-lockdown mentality—the belief that an armed response will solve most of our problems, domestic and foreign. It's a habit of thought that leads not figuratively but quite literally to a police state. The over-policing of schools is just a part of the increasing militarization of the police nationwide, which in turn fuels the smoldering paranoia that drives civilians to stock up on AR-15s and the like.

Ending this cycle of armed fear and violence will require getting police out of the schools along with the whole battery of security state accessories. The only way to get there will be via the broadest possible civil libertarian coalition: Black community groups and Ron Paul types, immigrants' rights activists and teachers and principals unions that see the big picture, liberals and conservatives united against the nanny/thug state.

There could be no finer spokesperson for such an ecumenical gathering than the newly crowned Miss America, Alabama-raised Brooklyn-residing Mallory Hytes Hagan. After wowing the pageant judges with her terpsichorean prowess, she demonstrated the soundest policy judgment. Asked if she thought it was a good idea to bring armed guards into schools, Ms. Hagan's response was clear. "No, I don't think the proper way to fight violence is with violence." According to the New York Daily News, she said it "firmly." Let people of goodwill rally behind this model citizen to end all the grotesque violence in our schools.

Chase Madar (@ChMadar) is a civil rights attorney in New York City who has written about the proven alternatives to school security overkill. His latest book is The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso).

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