Thoughts on School Surveillance

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I was asked to speak at a public school in a major city. I arrived at the front door of the school on time, only to be instructed by a uniformed officer to “get to the back of the line.”

At that point, I turned and saw a line of students that stretched down the street and around the corner. Twenty minutes later, as I finally approached the entrance to the school, I was able to see what was causing the delay.

As students entered the building, they were forced to take off their coats, belts and book bags and place them on a conveyor belt, after which they had to walk through an airport-style metal detector.

Students who failed to pass through successfully were taken into a corner and searched by a school police officer.

All of this occurred under the watchful eye of roving security cameras, an armed city policeman and a drug-sniffing dog. It was only after this ordeal was completed that students could finally go to their first-period class.

The first thing that struck me about this scene was the amount of money that the school had invested in surveillance technologies. At a moment of fierce budget cuts all around the country – here in Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett wants to slash $550 million for public schools – districts continue to dump millions of dollars into militaristic infrastructures that make schools look and feel more like prisons than learning institutions.

Of course, popular logic suggests that these measures, while undesirable, are necessary in order to stem the rising tide of violence in our nation’s schools. (With the Inquirer’s expose of underreported violence in Philadelphia public schools, such concerns are certainly warranted.)

Contrary to popular logic, however, these types of investments do little to make schools safer. In fact, according to every major sociological study, students actually feel less safe in schools that have excessive surveillance.

The other thing that I noticed when visiting that school was the students’ response to the procedures.

Instead of protesting this grotesque invasion of privacy, the students passively went through the daily ritual as if nothing was wrong. This is undoubtedly due to the radical shift in school discipline policies that has occurred over the course of their schooling years. As a result of these policies, an entire generation of students now views these draconian policies as both normal and necessary.

In a 15-year study of the School District of Philadelphia’s codes of disciplinary conduct, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Decoteau Irby found that, like most urban school districts, pHiladelphia has “widened and deepened its disciplinary net.”

Bringing a pair of scissors to school now constitutes a major violation, and we’ve also deepened the net by increasing the amount of trouble that students can get into for breaking the rules.

In 2004, a fourth-grade girl in Philadelphia was carried out in handcuffs and detained by police for eight hours for bringing a pair of scissors to school, even though the school acknowledged that she wasn’t using them as a weapon. These types of policies do little more than create a culture of fear and criminality within schools, which only makes students (and teachers!) more likely to walk away for good.

Rather than responding to social problems through investment and love, we hastily opt to punish and blame.

Instead of getting to the root causes of school violence, we choose reactionary zero-tolerance policies that do little more than win votes and bolster the ever-expanding Pennsylvania prison industry. “Getting tough” sounds good but, as a policy response, simply doesn’t work.

As a former teacher (and student) in Philadelphia public schools, I am not naive or idealistic about the problems that we face. High dropout rates, rising violence, limited funding and teacher attrition are real problems to which there are no simple solutions.

But one thing is certain: If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. Our students deserve better.

One thought on “Thoughts on School Surveillance

  1. Marc, I SWEAR, I keep trying to find something to disagree with you on but it just ain’t happening any time soon. O p.s, I live in Toronto, Canada and I honestly cannot imagine a school being the way this school is being described, it’s very unsettling. However I want to know what exactly you feel is the single most important program or system that can be implemented in order to curb violence and promote productivity in these schools? Thanks for your time.

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