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School Security: Just Smoke and Mirrors?

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In theory, parents and educators would do anything to keep students safe, whether those students are pre-kindergartners or wrapping up a college career. Nothing is too outlandish or over-the-top when it comes to protecting our kids and young adults. Metal detectors, security cameras, more police presence in school hallways, gated campuses - they all work toward the end goal of sheltering students and their educators and protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens.

Emotions aside though - how much does school security really increase actual safety? And do school security efforts actually hinder the learning experience? It sounds good to taut the virtues of tighter policies on school campuses but is it all just empty rhetoric?

Recently the University of Kentucky came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union for plans to install 2,000 security cameras on campus. Representatives at UK say the move is a response to the increasing randomness of school violence at all levels of the learning process and a way to better ensure student safety. The ACLU says it is a blatant violation of privacy.

I say it is money wasted because all the security cameras in the world would not have prevented the largest school tragedies of recent history, from Sandy Hook Elementary to the Virginia Tech massacre. Security cameras and other monitoring devices give us a false feeling of security and an actionable course when there are no answers to pointless questions.

While extreme, UK's camera monitoring plans are in sync with what is happening in K-12 schools across the nation. In the 2009 - 2010 school year, 84 percent of high schools had security cameras for safety monitoring. Over half of all middle and elementary schools had them too, with 73 and 51 percent respectively. Despite this, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of high schools with controlled access to school buildings during normal hours is lower than that of middle and elementary students. Though not expressly stated in these findings, it would seem that in the case of high schools, cameras are more of a way to catch rule-breakers after the fact than a way to prevent violence and other criminal activities.

Students are not the only ones who are the subjects of safeguards like surveillance cameras. Teachers, administrators and other staff are also vital when it comes to putting school safety into place - and in the case of teachers, they are on the front lines of what is going on with students. Limited access to K-12 campuses is meant to protect outsiders from harming the many people who are supposed to be there.
But what about student-versus-student violence, or student-versus-teacher physical altercations? In 2011, 12 percent of high schoolers reported being in a physical fight at school that year. Nearly 6 percent reported carrying a weapon, like a gun or knife, onto school property in the month preceding the survey. By the time a security camera picks up on the fact that a student has a knife or gun, is there really any timely way to prevent the inevitable.

Given the fact that state spending per student is lower than at the start of the recession, how much should schools shell out in the way of security costs? Perhaps the best investment we can make to safeguard our students and educators is in personal vigilance. Perhaps less reliance on so-called safety measures would lead to higher alertness.

What role should school security play on K-12 campuses, and should it be a financial priority?

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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