In the age of social media, students constantly post about political issues. School safety is no exception. Often, students call for an increase in funding for student support services and for the adoption of measures to stem gun violence in schools and society.
Yet, student voices are largely absent from public policy debates about what makes schools safe. Instead, legislators continue to mandate that schools implement hardening measures, such as surveillance cameras, metal detectors, armed security, and police officers.
Students have noticed this ramping up of school security measures and their impact on school environments. In a 2017 nationwide survey of 9,500 students aged 12-18, 71% reported observing security guards or police officers; 84% observed surveillance cameras; and 10% observed the use of metal detectors in their schools. In the words of one Florida student, “In the school, [cops] treat students like it’s an actual prison. Like they’re not youth.”
In an effort to amplify student voices, we reviewed existing school safety research about student perspectives on school security measures. We were surprised to discover how limited the research is. Researchers and legislators alike seldom consider the perspectives of the persons most directly impacted by these policies – students.
Here is what we learned:
Student Perspectives on School Security
Researchers have long known that a students’ age, gender, race, and previous life experiences (such as being the victim of a crime or having previous encounters with law enforcement) influence how safe they feel at school. Recent research indicates that students have nuanced views about the implementation of specific security measures (e.g. police, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors) and its effects on feelings of safety in school. As it turns out, both the number of security measures and their physical location on school grounds also matter to students.
A 2018 study that surveyed 54,350 Maryland students investigated students’ opinions about the impact of surveillance cameras on their feelings of safety. Overall, students’ feelings of safety increased as more outdoor cameras were placed on school grounds. However, when additional cameras were placed inside schools, students felt significantly less safe.
White and Black students differ in their attitudes about the presence of cameras in some respects. The presence of cameras, regardless of location, were associated with Black students’ feeling safer than white students. Although feelings of safety decreased for Black students when more cameras were placed inside, the drop was significantly greater for white students. The researchers believe this difference may be due to the feeling by Black students that cameras can provide a measure of protection by documenting racially discriminatory treatment inside school buildings.
Students’ opinions on metal detectors are more uniform. For all student groups, the placement of metal detectors in schools consistently reduce students’ feelings of safety. This result is significant when paired with what is known about the impact of metal detectors on safety. Overall, metal detectors do not appear to reduce the incidence of injuries, deaths, or threats of violence on school grounds. In fact, the Trump Administration’s Federal School Safety Report concedes, “The impact of metal detectors, X-ray machines, and similar screening technologies on school violence is questionable.”
A 2012 study attempted to isolate the impact of other forms of security. Once again, it found that metal detectors routinely made students feel less safe. Also, students feel less safe and have more anxiety when a school employs more than one form of security, such as school-based police officers, bars on windows, surveillance cameras, and locked doors. However, having only one of these security measures did not impact their feelings of safety.
Research on the impact of school policing on students’ feelings of safety is sparse, and the results are contradictory and inconclusive. However, school policing programs have expanded so rapidly that today students have a greater daily exposure to police than ever before. The concrete impact of this presence on children’s lives is well documented: Black students, students with disabilities, and especially Black students with disabilities are arrested at the highest rates of any student group.
The exposure of students to police is not evenly distributed either, with majority Black schools more likely to have security staff than other schools. Researcher Jason Nance, in an examination of federal data on schools nationwide, found that the racial composition of a school, not the level of violence, was the strongest predictor of the adoption of strict security measures. Students of color are more likely to attend such schools, even when those students attend schools with lower levels of violence.
While these studies provide important insights into students’ feelings about school safety measures, they are far from definitive. Although research is weak, it highlights the fact that different types of students (by race, gender, disability, etc.) experience “security” quite differently.
If decision-makers are to make smart, effective, and fair decisions about school safety policies, they must consider whether implementing a specific security measure might result in students, or even a subgroup of them, having negative school experiences.
What Keeps Students Safe?
A growing body of research demonstrates that investing in building positive school climates will improve safety.
Positive school climates are those with supportive and trusting relationships between staff and students. Relationships are enhanced when there are adequate supports for students, such as mental health professionals and school counselors, diversity of staff, lower student-teacher ratios, and a school-wide commitment to alternative approaches to school discipline like restorative justice.
But how do positive school climates improve school safety?
Research suggests that in positive school environments students feel more comfortable reporting concerning or threatening behaviors, and adults are in a better position to intervene in appropriate and effective ways. One survey found that positive school climates were consistently associated with lower levels of harassment and bullying. Another reported that these environments could be credited, at least in part, in averting nine potential school shootings. Whether “safety” involves reducing bullying, harassment, assaults, or more serious threats to the school community, positive school climates make a difference.
Students have been speaking up about school safety matters. While their views are not unanimous, they all tend to have a more expansive vision of “safety” than many of the adults who make policy. Across the country, students have begun to organize.
In Los Angeles, students were successful in ending random metal detector searches after arguing they were ineffective and conducted in a racially discriminatory manner. Students in Parkland protested a policy that required them to wear clear backpacks, calling it ineffective and reactionary. And in Philadelphia, student groups opposed the expansion of metal detectors to the few public high schools that had not adopted them, and they have called for the removal of police and a reinvestment of security funds to student support services and staff.
These movements show that students’ opinions and experiences should be central to decisions that are made about how to improve school environments and protect students. It is past time for school administrators and legislators to listen.
Lucy Corlett is an urban studies major at the University of Pennsylvania. Olivia Pennoyer is a student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Both Lucy and Olivia have interned at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.