School Security Practices And Crime Research Paper

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The crime control model of school security has led to an environment of school prisonization and student criminalization. The increasing use of restrictive security practices contrasts with both the decline in school crime and violence as well as the research suggesting that these practices may not be effective. Additionally, this intensification runs the risk of invading students’ privacy and creating a negative school environment. Much research suggests that it would be better for schools to focus on other evidence-based strategies to reduce school disorder and respond to student misbehavior. If schools continue to use restrictive security practices that mirror the criminal justice system, they may, ironically, ensure that certain students are found in that system in the future.

The Prisonization Of School Security

It is abundantly clear that most modern schools, particularly urban public schools, utilize a crime control model when defining and managing student behavior. This has occurred largely in response to school shootings and other visible instances of student violence (Addington 2009). More and more schools have implemented prison-like practices in an effort to improve their security (Giroux 2003), resulting in the use of many restrictive security practices and procedures intended to deter school crime and ensure the safety of students and staff. Indeed, recent statistics indicate that at least 55 % of all schools, and nearly all urban schools, now have security and surveillance programs (Devoe et al. 2005; Gottfredson and Gottfredson 2001).

Examples of restrictive security practices seen in many schools range from requiring formal dress codes (Gottfredson and Gottfredson 2001) to installing metal detectors (Brooks et al. 2000). To further detect the presence of weapons and other contraband, schools may perform regular locker searches, require students to carry clear book bags, and use drug-sniffing dogs (Brooks et al. 2000; DeVoe et al. 2005; Gottfredson and Gottfredson 2001). Visitors to campuses are generally required to sign in before entering school buildings and student identification badges are often mandated to facilitate immediate identification of rule-breakers and to deter defiance and delinquency (Brooks et al. 2000).Hallways are often supervised by school staff and administrators (Devoe et al. 2005) or even by uniformed security guards or uniformed and armed security resource officers (SROs; Giroux 2003). Additionally, many schools have chosen to install security cameras that provide constant surveillance to most areas within a school (Devoe et al. 2005). Most institutions have locked or monitored doors and gates to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering school grounds and to prohibit students from leaving campus (Devoe et al. 2005; Gottfredson and Gottfredson 2001). Schools are even investigating the use of cutting-edge technology to enhance security, such as iris recognition software, webcams, and radio frequency identification tags on ID badges (Addington 2009). Ironically, even with the increased implementation of these prison-like practices, parents and school boards have continued to call for stricter measures of control (Brooks et al. 2000) to manage the fear and anxiety surrounding school.

The intensification of school security has also led to an increase in the criminalization of students, such that schools often manage and punish student behavior in a way that is analogous to the treatment of adult criminals (Giroux 2003; Kupchik and Monahan 2006; Tredway et al. 2007). For example, the actions of students who violate school rules are often described with criminal justice language (Tredway et al. 2007): “suspects” or “repeat offenders” are subjected to “investigations,” “interrogations,” and “searches” by dogs or SROs and may then be involved in “lineups” and school “courts.” The students are then punished in ways similar to the sentences received by adult criminals; zero tolerance policies, for instance, function as the school equivalent of mandatory minimum criminal sentencing statutes. These policies have increased the use of harsh discipline, such as student exclusion through expulsion and suspension, even though these disciplinary responses have various negative impacts on both students and schools (Welch and Payne 2011). Excluded students are more likely to experience school failure, drop out of school, and engage in delinquency and drug use both in and out of school. Unfortunately, just as the use of more restrictive school security measures has increased, so has the use of these and other harsh disciplinary techniques.

Although it could be assumed that the intensification of school security is a result of increased school crime and violence, evidence suggests this is not the case (Welch and Payne 2011). In fact, these changes have occurred despite a documented decline in student delinquency and drug use, violent victimization in schools, and school-related deaths (Brooks et al. 2000; Devoe et al. 2005). Other possible explanations for this intensification include popular anxiety about high-profile instances of school violence, termed the “Columbine effect” (Addington 2009); increased school accountability for the academic performance of students (Hirschifield 2008); concerns about possible litigation in response to violent incidents on campus (Hirschifield 2008); and responses to the growing proportion of minority students (Welch and Payne 2011). While many of these explanations fall short in certain ways (Hirschfield 2008), it is likely that a combination of these factors have allowed this intensification to continue, leading schools to become less oriented around education and more like prisons focused on punishment (Giroux 2003).

Trends In School Security

The use of restrictive security practices in schools has been increasing over the past decade. Using data from the School Survey on Crime and Safety, Payne and Eckert (2011) discussed the percentage of public school principals who reported using various security measures during the years 1996, 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 (Table 1). The School Survey on Crime and Safety is a national questionnaire administered to public school principals by the National Center for Education Statistics. Approximately 3,500 principals from schools at all levels are asked questions on topics such as school disorder and crime, safety and discipline, and prevention programs and policies. Between the years 1996 and 2007, the imposition of school uniforms increased from 3 % to 17.5 %, drug testing of certain students increased from 4.1 % to 6.4 %, and the use of identification badges for students increased from 3.9 % to 7.6 %. Other measures show even more dramatic increases, such as the use of identification badges for faculty (25.4–58.3 %), video surveillance (19.4–55 %), and controlled access to school grounds (19.4–55 %). Finally, Table 1 shows that more and more schools controlled access to their buildings over this time, from 53 % in 1996 to 89.5 % in 2007.

School Security Practices And Crime Research Paper

Similar trends are seen when Payne and Eckert (2011) analyzed student reports of security measures from the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement during the school years of 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007 (Table 2). Designed by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the School Crime Supplement is an occasional addendum to the annual NVCS that gathers specific information from individual students regarding school-related disorder and victimization on a national level. Data measuring students’ perceptions of safety and crime at school are collected from approximately 6,500 12-through 18-year-old students attending public and private schools.

School Security Practices And Crime Research Paper

Of particular note is the increase of various measures between 1999 and 2001: A clear upward shift was reported in locked entrances and exit doors (38.1 % in 1999 to 48.8 % in 2001) and school security guards or law enforcement personnel (54.1 % in 1999 to 63.6 % in 2001). This trend continued through 2007, with the biggest increases in security in the areas of locked doors (38.1 % in 1999 to 60.9 % in 2007), security guards or law enforcement personnel (54.1 % in 1999 to 68.8 % in 2007), and surveillance cameras (38.5 % in 2001 to 66 % in 2007).

When schools are grouped by characteristics such as level, location, and size, differences in the type and amount of school security measures are seen (Payne and Eckert 2011). For instance, elementary schools are generally the least likely to implement restrictive security practices, followed by middle schools then high schools. One exception, however, is controlled access to buildings and school grounds, which is more often seen in elementary schools. In addition, larger schools are more likely than smaller schools to use most enhanced security measures, as are urban schools when compared with schools in towns or rural areas. Finally, schools with a greater percentage of minority students and students who receive free or reduced-price lunches are more likely to implement these practices (Payne and Eckert 2011).

The Effectiveness Of Security Measures

Very little research exists that evaluates the effectiveness of school security measures. The pervasiveness of these measures combined with the lack of knowledge regarding their impact is of concern; if these practices are ineffective, they could allow schools to feel secure when they are not and may even create a dangerous environment by diverting money and resources from measures that do actually work (Addington 2009).

Several studies that have been conducted examine the effectiveness of security measures based on perceptions of specific practices rather than actual impact. Overall, school community members perceive particular measures as positive and believe that they prevent crime and disorder. For instance, both students and staff view SROs as effective; similar beliefs are held by school administrators regarding security cameras. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support these perceptions (for a full review, see Addington 2009).

The small amount of evaluation research that has examined more objective outcomes related to the use of security measures is inconclusive. An early study of school security examined the impact of metal detectors in three program and 12 comparison high schools in New York City (Ginsberg and Loffredo 1993). Surveys were completed by 13,999 students in June 1992. Students in schools with metal detectors were less likely to carry weapons inside the school building or to and from school. However, there were no student differences in weapon carrying in other locations nor in threats or physical fights anywhere (Ginsberg and Loffredo 1993).

Mayer and Leone (1999) examined the relationships among school security, discipline management, student self-protection, and school disorder. Data were taken from 6,947 public school students in grades 7–12 who were interviewed as part of the 1995 School Crime Supplement. The structural equation model that was estimated contained four constructs: secure building, which included security measures such as guards, visitor sign in, metal detectors, and locked doors; system of law, which reflected students’ perceptions of rules and rule enforcement; school disorder, which included gang presence, drug availability, and personal attack and theft; and individual self-protection, which contained student avoidance of school location and fear of attack. Results suggested that schools which used physical security measures, such as metal detectors and locked doors, experienced more crime and disorder, as did schools that used personnel-based measures, such as security guards and hall monitors. In contrast, schools that focused on communication of schools rules and consequences for rule infractions experienced less disorder.

Finally, Chen (2008) analyzed a model of school crime that included two forms of physical school security: the number of ways a school controls access to campus and the number of ways in which a school monitors student activities. Both measures were hypothesized to be negatively related to the number of crimes that had occurred in the school in the past 12 months. Other factors in the model included urbanicity, community crime, student socioeconomic status, school size, student mobility, student misbehavior, and serious disciplinary penalties such as transfers and suspensions. Data were taken from 712 secondary schools whose principals had participated in the 2000 School Survey on Crime and Safety. Bivariate correlations showed that the number of ways a school controls access to their buildings was positively correlated with the number of crimes, while the number of ways a school monitors student activities was not significantly related to crimes. When the full model was estimated using structural equation modeling, the path between school security (a latent variable containing both building access control and student activity monitoring) and number of criminal incidents was negative but nonsignificant, contrary to the study’s hypothesis. These findings suggest that, while school security measures may not increase crime as reported by Mayer and Leone (1999), they do not appear to reduce crime either (Chen 2008).

Ultimately, there is little evidence supporting the effectiveness of security measures. In addition, the few studies that do exist suffer from severe limitations. First, several of the studies measure effectiveness through perceptions of school community members, rather than actual impact on school disorder (see Addington 2009). In addition, all of these studies rely on cross-sectional data with no baseline measures of school disorder, thus making it impossible to truly establish the temporal order of the implementation of security measures and the level of school disorder (Ginsberg and Loffredo 1993; Mayer and Leone 1999; Chen 2008).

Student Civil Liberties

An unintended consequence of enhanced school security that has generated much discussion is infringement on student civil liberties (Addington 2009; Berger 2003), which can be separated into two related concerns: suspicionless searches and privacy encroachments. Searches of students’ persons, lockers, and belongings have been the subject of many court cases regarding the fourth Amendment, including several Supreme Court rulings. One landmark case, New Jersey v. TLO (1985), established that searches conducted by school administrators require a far lower standard of suspicion than police searches of citizens on the street, because the intrusion on students’ privacy is deemed minor and is overshadowed by public health and safety concerns (Berger 2003). The rationale for this standard is the “special needs” doctrine that emerged from this case, stating that a special need exists such that schools must maintain discipline in order to have an environment conducive to learning. Therefore, it is not necessary for administrators to have probable cause before searching students and their belongings (Berger 2003), including the use of metal detectors and locker searches. Essentially, although students have the right to privacy, this right is counterbalanced by the “special need for an immediate response to behavior that threatens either the safety of schoolchildren and teachers or the educational process itself” (New Jersey v. TLO 1985, p.353). Another landmark case, Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), applied this doctrine to drug testing of student athletes; later, this was expanded to allow schools to drug test all students participating in any extracurricular activity (Board of Education v. Earls 2002). Thus, although students do not waive their fourth Amendment rights in school, the special needs doctrine offers school officials a large amount of discretion and flexibility in order to maintain a safe environment (Berger 2003).

Although these Supreme Court rulings applied the special needs doctrine to searches by school administrators for contraband in order to reduce or prevent drug use, lower court rulings have expanded the application to include searches by law enforcement personnel and security measures designed to prevent violence (Addington 2009; Berger 2003). Originally, searches allowed through New Jersey v. TLO and similar cases were limited to those conducted by school personnel rather than police officers, based on the rationale that the mission of school officials is to educate rather than collect evidence for a criminal prosecution. However, public anxiety over school crime and violence has led to a new view of student searches by police officers as acceptable under the special needs doctrine because these searches are seen as minimal, nonintrusive, and within the realm of reasonable suspicion (Berger 2003). In addition, decisions by lower appellate courts have also expanded this power to security searches designed to prevent violence, such as metal detector screenings (Addington 2009).

There is also a sense of these security measures infringing on students’ privacy, even beyond the legal exploration of suspicionless searches (Addington 2009). This can be seen particularly with tactics that monitor student behavior in public areas, such as security cameras and the presence of SROS, which are also the measures that tend to be implemented most often. Concerns appear when these measures are used in ways for which they are not originally intended (Addington 2009). For example, if security cameras are originally installed for violence prevention, is it legitimate to then use them to thwart vandalism? Additionally, the use of cutting-edge technology to enhance security, such as webcams and radio frequency identification tags on ID badges, has the potential for even greater privacy infringement (Addington 2009).

The Impact On School Community

This invasion on student privacy and civil liberties may lead to another consequence of the intensification of school security: the altering of the school environment. Much research has illustrated the importance of school climate and social organization. Schools with healthy supportive environments generally have more effective teachers who enjoy their jobs more and have more positive perceptions of the school administration (Gottfredson et al. 2005). In addition, students who attend these types of schools are more attached to teachers, more committed to school, and have stronger belief in school norms (Payne et al. 2003). This positive school community and subsequent student bonding, in turn, leads to a beneficial learning environment and less school crime and disorder (Gottfredson et al. 2005; Payne et al. 2003).

But what happens to the school community and subsequent student behavior when restrictive security practices are implemented? Restrictive measures may first lead to an oppositional relationship between students and staff, as students could protest these practices with petition drives and class boycotts (Berger 2003). Even without this type of adversarial response, aggressive security measures may negatively impact the school environment by interfering with the educational process, disrupting the learning environment, and wasting valuable class time (Berger 2003). For example, Devine (1996) described how teachers in a New York City school could not teach due to “loud noises coming from the walkie-talkies in the corridors” supervised by security staff (p. 89), while Glazer (1992) detailed how administrators in another New York City school took close to 3 h to “funnel all 3,000 students into the gym, where they are frisked with hand-held metal detectors and their book bags are probed” (p. 790).

In addition, the implementation of many of these intrusive security practices often creates a climate of fear and resentment, resulting in negative attitudes toward school (Addington 2009; Hyman and Peronne 1998). For example, (Hyman and Peronne 1998) detail how searches result in detrimental consequences for both students and staff, such as lower student morale, distrust for staff, and alienation for law enforcement authorities; other studies have shown similar student alienation and mistrust as a consequence of restrictive security measures (Noguera 1995). Metal detectors, security patrols, and lock-down drills make schools feel like prisons (Noguera 1995) and often make students more afraid rather than less (Devine 1996). As Devine (1996) describes, aggressive security measures in urban schools result in “a climate of fear that indoctrinates youth into a culture of violence and dictates that only those exhibiting a ‘tough’ demeanor will survive” (p.179). As fear increases, so does student resentment and hostility (Hyman and Peronne 1998), leading to lower student bonding and a negative school environment (Addington 2009). Thus, it is possible that intrusive security might have the opposite effect than intended, leading students to increasingly break school rules. Ultimately, there is a strong chance that the intensification of school security leads to students feeling as though they do not belong in their schools, which, in turn, may decrease learning and increase the likelihood of these students engaging in deviant and delinquent behavior.

The Future Of School Security

Beyond a doubt, far more “evidence-based research is.. .needed to evaluate the costs and effectiveness of school security measures” (Berger 2003, p. 351). The lack of studies clearly shows that evaluations must be conducted to examine the impact of these practices on the levels of misbehavior and violence in schools. Further, the little research that has been done is severely limited in several ways. First, several studies examine perceptions of school community members as an outcome, rather than actual effectiveness on school crime and violence (for a full review, see Addington 2009). In addition, the few studies that do examine the impact of these measures on school disorder rely on cross-sectional data with no baseline measures of crime and deviance (Ginsberg and Loffredo 1993; Mayer and Leone 1999; Chen 2008). This makes it impossible to truly establish the temporal order of the relationship between restrictive school security and school disorder; that is, it is possible that these practices were implemented in schools that were already displaying high levels of crime, rather than leading to more crime after implementation, as suggested by Mayer and Leone (1999). This lack of research is surprising given the large amount of evidence supporting the use of other policies and programs designed to prevent student misbehavior. Future studies should use longitudinal data and include baseline measures of crime to examine the impact of restrictive measures on school disorder.

In addition, the financial costs of these practices need to be studied. Little data exist on the cumulative cost to schools of metal detectors, SROs, security cameras, and other such measures (Addington 2009). Along with a gathering of costs, cost-benefit analyses should be conducted to evaluate whether the financial price is worth the effectiveness. Included in this consideration should be the examination of the possibility of “budgetary trade-offs” that may happen in order to pay for the enhanced security; it is possible that the cost of these measures leads to fewer resources for actual learning, such as books and staff (Addington 2009, p. 1440).

Even if they are found to be both effective and cost-effective, the use of these restrictive security measures should be balanced against the costs to student civil liberties and the school environment. Although more research is needed, studies do suggest that these measures infringe upon student civil rights (Berger 2003). As Addington (2009) discusses, it appears as though no one is protecting the students’ rights, as no one with power is questioning the impact of enhanced security measures on student privacy and civil liberties. Students may want to change polices but they do not have the ability to do so, while most parents believe this security keeps their children safe and school officials are likely to give in to the demand for strong school security. With the possibility of technology, such as radio frequency identification tags, enhancing security even further, it is imperative that the impact of these measures on students’ rights is considered. While student safety is clearly important, school officials should work toward developing and implementing strategies that keep student safe without infringing on their fourth Amendment rights (Berger 2003).

It is also possible that enhanced security measures create a negative learning environment, filled with fear and hostility. The few studies that have been conducted suggest that implementing restrictive measures such as metal detectors, locker checks, and security personnel may lead to an “unwelcome, almost jail-like, heavily scrutinized environment [that] may foster the violence and disorder school administrators hope to avoid” (Mayer and Leone 1999, p. 349; Chen 2008). The findings suggest, instead, that more attention should be paid to communicating school rules and norms and fairly and consistently enforcing these rules with appropriate consequences (Mayer and Leone 1999), a practice that is well supported by previous research (Berger 2003; Gottfredson et al. 2005).

This leads to a broader discussion on what schools can do to effectively reduce disorder and violence. Fortunately, a large body of research exists that establishes effective strategies.


As the crime control model continues to guide security, “schools grow more like prisons than institutions of education” (Giroux 2003: 553). Reliance on this model has intensified security practices to the point of creating a picture of school prisonization and student criminalization, despite a clear decline in school crime and violence. The little research that has been conducted suggests that, although school officials appear to be pleased with enhanced security, these practices may not be effective for reducing student misbehavior. In addition, this intensification runs the strong risk of invading students’ privacy and creating a negative school environment, both of which may, in fact, increase school disorder. Until evidence supporting the use of these practices is provided, schools would benefit from focusing on other evidence-based strategies to reduce school disorder and respond to student misbehavior, rather than continuing to use restrictive security practices that mirror the criminal justice system. If changes are not made, the school-to-prison pipeline may, ironically, ensure that certain students are found in that system in the future.


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