School surveillance doesn't deter crime

Surveillance cameras, security guards and zero tolerance policies don’t deter crime in schools, concludes Torin Monahan, a Vanderbilt professor. If anything, security measures “make students feel less safe, by sending them the message that adults distrust and fear them,” reports The Tennessean.

“Columbine had armed security guards. Columbine had video cameras,” said Monahan, referring to the notorious 1999 high school shootings in Colorado that took 15 lives and sparked a nationwide campaign for heightened school security.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “surveillance is not good for preventing crime. It’s more useful for catching people after the fact.”

In Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education, researchers looked at similar schools: Those with “cameras, armed guards, frequent pat-downs and weapons checks, even some with barbed-wire perimeters” had the same crime rates as schools without those measures.

The charter high school in my book, Our School, is a small school that doesn’t let students get away with anything. Teachers enforce the rules backed by the principal. No money is spent on security. It’s not necessary.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Except where school boards are easily panicked, security measures generally track with school disturbances and/or crime in the immediate neighborhood.
    So it would follow that security measures would be in the tough schools. If the crime rate is the same as those schools without major security, that means the crime rate in tough schools is ratcheted down by security to that of the more settled schools. IOW, it works.

  2. The schools were supposed to be comparable in risk. Otherwise, the research would be meaningless.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Meaningless research? No kidding. Never seen such a thing.
    So we have schools with similar crime/violence/disturbance numbers and substantially different security apparatus.
    When my kids played ball in a suburban school league, we visited a lot of schools. With one exception, all had approximately zero security. Similar, in other words. The exception was a ‘hood school which was in a neighborhood looking as if it had been lifted entire from the worst of downtown and put on the city border.
    A lot of very bad things happened in that neighborhood. The school had a ton of security and still bad things happened.
    That was the school where the visiting cheerleaders went on and off the field inside a hollow square formed by the football team.
    And of the dozen and a half schools I went to, it was the only one with noticeable security.
    Strange phenom, schools with similar issues having markedly different investments in security.
    Were these troubled schools with differing security levels, or more peaceable schools in the burbs with differing security levels?
    Of course, in the ‘burbs, the varsity club may be doing the policing sub rosa.

  4. I worked many years in a community agency in the kind of neighborhood Richard describes. Our “security” consisted of locks on doors and an overnight person in the building. We also had reception people seated near the entrances. Mostly our security consisted of greeting people who came in the building and being friendly and getting to know them. We were an open building with lots of public contact. It amuses me everytime I go to a clinic where the receptionists and all staff are holed up behind glass and buzzer systems–while I have to wait out in the waiting room with all the other unsafe people. I cannot miss the message–the clientele served here are dangerous people, we don’t want to get too close.

    While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate total openness in a school environment–simply because there are so few people who are out and about and likely to encounter a stranger to find out what they are about, it doesn’t surprise me that the sophisticated internal camera systems aren’t having much impact. First off–it’s pretty likely no one has time to watch them. Second–buzzing people in gets to be a pretty automatic sort of thing, as does letting folks in through unofficial entry doors (and that sign in sheet in the office is nothing but a ritual). Effective security, rather than relying on what the camera people want to sell, requires some thinking about what the reasonable dangers are, who we want to have in the building (and who we want to screen out), and who is responsible for ensuring the positive tone of the building tha contributes to feeling safe. Personally I don’t feel safe in a building that tries to keep me out.


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