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Metal detectors and strict policing in schools criminalize minority students, study says

Sep 13, 2016

Public schools with majority black and other nonwhite students rely on more intense security measures, to the detriment of the students.

That's according to new research paper from John P. Nance, associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, schools across the country felt a new sense of urgency to create stricter security policies.

Nance wanted to know if the intensification occurred equally across schools that were majority-minority and majority-white. According to The Atlantic:

In the first empirical analysis of its kind, Nance gained authorization to access a restricted database from the U.S. Department of Education—the School Survey on Crime and Safety conducted in 2009-10 and 2013-14—to examine school security methods pre- and post- the Newtown school massacre. He found a clear and consistent pattern, even after controlling for a host of variables that might explain the presence of stricter student surveillance, such as school crime, neighborhood crime, school disorder (disciplinary or behavioral problems on campus), and other student demographics and school characteristics.

Nance told The Atlantic:

After controlling for all those things, I still found that the concentration of students of color was a predictor of whether or not schools decided to rely on more intense [security] measures. I questioned why that was [and] it seemed like race was playing a factor in these decisions.

In schools where students of color accounted for more than half of the student body, the probability of the school using a mix of metal detectors, school police and security guards, locked gates, and random sweeps was two to 18 times greater than at schools where the nonwhite population was less than 20%, according to the study.

But schools were using intense security methods long before Sandy Hook.

In New York City, more than 100,000 middle and high school students begin each school day by shedding their jackets, belts, and shoes and stepping through metal detectors, according to WNYC.

And it's been that way since they were installed at the front doors of more than 80 schools more than 20 years ago. Today, students at more than 236 New York City schools are required to pass through metal detectors.

There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

One reason may be that the amount of contraband found is low, according to WNYC. In the approximately 3 million scans conducted in the first two months of the 2014-2015 school year, only 126 possible weapons were seized among schools that scan daily.

Studies have also shown the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools negatively impacts students’ perceptions of trust and safety and even increases fear among some students.

Kesi Foster is the New York City coordinator for Urban Youth Collaborative, a student-led educational-justice coalition. He told The Atlantic:

We have yet to see any evidence that this kind of [intensive surveillance and] policing creates an academic environment where [students] are more likely to thrive, improves school culture and climate, or creates a safer learning environment. Yet cities, states, and the federal government continue to invest in these kind of strategies and the only results we see is the criminalization of black youth in their schools. School districts should divest the money they are spending on [surveillance and policing] and reinvest that money to hire more guidance counselors and restorative justice coordinators, and train community members to support the social and emotional growth of children.

Opponents have also argued that students can't get into the building on time when they have to wait in line for an hour to go through the metal detector.

In a report called “Safety With Dignity,” a task force created by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended last July that the city remove some metal detectors. The NYPD agreed to study the issue, but hasn't provided a timeline.

But there are some who believe strict security policies are necessary, and keep everyone safe. Greg Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237. He told WNYC the metal detectors are working as an effective deterrent and warned that the task force should be wary about cheering their removal.

He also brushed aside the complaints that the scanners are used primarily in schools serving low-income black and Hispanic students. Floyd told WNYC:

Would I say put metal detectors in Brooklyn Tech? I would not, because the students there, some from affluent neighborhoods, are committed to learning, they’re not committed to fighting. That’s not the case in every New York City public school, and you can’t say, ‘Treat the children the same’ because we don’t do that.

Nance tells The Atlantic he believes most educators are acting on good faith and care about kids, but he still worries about the lingering effects of strict security on the students. He said:

The message that we are giving to our students now is that white children have greater privacy rights than [nonwhite] children. That, to me, is fundamentally unfair. That, to me, exacerbates the racial tensions that our nation is already confronting. Why are we feeding that?