The Universal Notebook: Insecurities about school security

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In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., school systems all over greater Portland, Maine and America are spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to beef up security.

School Administrative District 51 in Cumberland has been in the news because its security upgrades, which were supposed to cost $50,000, ended up costing $276,000.

No one can fault school officials and parents for wanting to make sure that students are as safe as possible. And far be it for me to substitute my judgment for that of the professionals hired to administer our schools, the citizens elected to guide policy and the parents who have children in school. Mine have all graduated.

But a few students asked me last week what I thought about increased security in Yarmouth, where locks, remote entry systems and ID badges for teachers and staff are in the works with support from a $50,000 Community Oriented Policing Services grant, and this is what I told them:

Our schools are actually very safe. Still, it makes good sense to control access to school facilities. The days of wide open schools are over.

That said, there is nothing school systems can do to prevent the next Columbine or Sandy Hook. There is simply no way to stop a disturbed individual bent on mayhem and willing to die in the process.

At Columbine, the school had locked doors and armed guards. But when students are the perpetrators, there is no way to keep them out of the schools. What good are swipe cards and IDs if the attackers are students?

Sandy Hook had an electronic lock system that required visitors to identify themselves and be buzzed in. The killer simply buzzed himself in with an AR-15.

Instead, between 2000 and 2010 American schools have tried to fortify themselves against violence. Buildings with controlled access have increased from 75 percent to 92 percent. School grounds with controlled access have increased from 34 percent to 46 percent. After all, how safe are your schools if the building is locked, but the playgrounds, parking lots and athletic fields are wide open? The percent of schools requiring faculty and staff IDs increased from 25 percent to 63 percent. Schools with security cameras increased from 19 percent to 61 percent.

These are all essentially feel-good measures, about as effective as ducking under your desk in a nuclear attack. Though it may be counter-intuitive, there are indications that ramping up school security has the opposite of the intended effect. Students can feel less secure when constantly reminded by locks, badges, cameras and guards that they may be in danger. So, ironically, increased school security may make parents feel good, but their children feel less safe.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “Many types of school security correspond with a significantly greater likelihood that students will be worried about crime – while none reduce feelings of worry.”

Well, at least we’re not talking about armed guards and metal detectors, not yet anyway.

Stricter security can also have the effect of criminalizing student misbehavior, asking law enforcement and courts to deal with issues that have traditionally been handled by school authorities and parents. Locks, IDs, security cameras and security officers can create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, one that tacitly assumes students are potential criminals.

If we were serious about protecting our children, we would insist on enacting strict gun control. As long as any lunatic can easily acquire an arsenal in this country, we will continue to experience public massacres. But since we seem unwilling or unable to do anything about our gun sickness, we might want to spend some of those tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on security equipment on programs aimed at reducing the bullying, discrimination and prejudice that marginalizes some people and contributes to the likelihood that they will strike back.

I’d put my money on trying to create a culture of compassion. And then maybe we could start getting rid of the guns.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.