Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Schools or Fortresses?

This blog was originally published on June 1, 2013 in The View Point.

By Bill Holmes

With the tragedies that have happened in the last few years at some of our schools, security our teachers and children seems to be a topic of discussion in many of our newscasts and newspapers. Let's get this straight right up front. Protection of our children is our most important duty both as parents and as a society. But at the risk of being politically incorrect let me ask the question: at what cost? At what cost to our school budgets, teachers, parents and most importantly our children?

No one can deny that incidents like the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 or the more recent Sandy Hook Elementary shootings at the end of last year are tragic. They rip our guts out. There is no way to rationalize the deaths of so many children in such a senseless manner. The fact that these tragedies are reported, talked about and analyzed on every news outlet makes them hard to get away from. We are constantly reminded of them and forced to think about them even when we need a respite.

We can accept when a child dies from disease or an accident. Those things are the luck of the draw. That doesn't make it easy but it's part of the way things have been for all time. Some children don't make it to adulthood. We do a much better job of getting our young through childhood than we ever have before in our history. Medicine, sanitation and improved nutrition means the vast majority of kids are now expected to survive childhood. That makes it even harder to accept when a child dies. We expect all our children to make it safely to adulthood.

Now we have what we think is a new problem. That would be school violence. I don't mean a pushing match in the cafeteria between students. I mean when an armed maniac enters a school campus and kills people. Sandy Hook and Columbine are the worst cases but there are others. Jilted lovers go to schools to confront their ex who is a teacher or employee and it gets violent, maybe with collateral victims. A gang turf war erupts on campus and escalates.

There has always been some violence in schools. Anytime you get a few hundred kids together in the same place there are bound to be disagreements. When I went to school those disagreements were settle by the students with fists or a wrestling match and the discipline was enforced by the teachers. Things have escalated some since those days.

Although I live in a relatively safe suburb, there is a cop assigned to every high school and junior high. You have to show an ID and be either a parent, guardian or designated alternate to gain entrance to a school. Every door except the main front one is locked. There are surveillance cameras everywhere. Many schools have metal detectors at the entrances. Dogs are used to sniff for drugs in lockers. Teachers, employees and students wear ID badges. Some of those badges have radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that allow tracing of each student's location. We have stupid zero tolerance policies that leave no room for common sense. In many places the whole campus is fenced. Our schools are being turned into fortresses.

I wonder what effect all this security has on the children. Do they feel safe or do they feel confined? Are we scaring them and making them overly cautious and suspicious? I mourn the loss of freedom. If there is a camera in the bathroom and one by the back door how can a kid sneak a smoke or cut class? If all the doors have alarms and the campus is fenced how can a student go to Taco Bell for lunch? How do a couple of guys settle a disagreement when they get arrested by the school cop for having a fight?

I know smoking and cutting class and fighting aren't ideal behavior but they shouldn't be criminal offenses either. I worry about the impact on school district budgets all this security has. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) recently approved $4.65 million in school security upgrades. DISD also has their own police force and asecurity budget over $17 million. The Fort Worth ISD budgeted $9.4 million or $112 per student for security in 2012/13. Even my suburban school district spends about $800,000 per year on security. That is a ton of money. Is it all really needed? Did DISD approve an additional $4.65 million upgrade in February because of the Sandy Hook incident a couple of months before? Are the upgrades necessary or a knee jerk reaction? 

I'm glad our educators and school board trustees are concerned about school safety and security. I'm not happy about the amount being spent. Every dollar spent on security is one less dollar spent on actual education. I also wonder if school boards spend money on things like security and new football stadiums because they haven't been able to fix the real problems in our schools. Chest thumping about a new security system distracts people from the facts that many students aren't prepared for life or college when they graduate from high school, if they graduate.

The fact of the matter is that many more students will be killed or injured in school bus, automobile or athletic accidents than will ever be harmed by an intruder into the school. So our reaction is to install metal detectors in schools but not require seat belts on school buses. We put up a fence around the campus but we let the Jr. varsity kids use old worn out football helmets. We have metal doors with industrial strength locks but we don't build sidewalks or make safe intersections around schools. The schools in Moore, Oklahoma don't have storm cellars or safe rooms but they have security cameras. As usual we concentrate on the issue that's in the headlines, not necessarily the issue that needs attention.

It's good that strangers can't just wander into a school or that young students can't wander off campus. It's good that there are cameras to deter vandalism. The problem is that a camera or a metal detector or ID badge are not going to deter a crazed individual with an arsenal from storming a school or a dorm or a movie theater. I support increased background checks for gun buyers but that won't stop the one in a million lunatic from killing people at a crowded theater.

Don't say “we must protect our children at all costs” because that is simply not true. If it were true we would have safe sidewalks, safe intersections, school storm cellars, safer school buses. We make choices everyday where and how to spend our money. We make compromises.

We can and should be careful but we can never be completely safe. Bad stuff is going to happen and sometimes it will happen to innocent children and good people. I loathe the nanny state and overprotective, helicopter parents. Kids need some freedom. They need to be able to make a mistake or do foolish things and then suffer the consequences.

Remember, there is a finite amount of money for our schools. Should we buy another surveillance camera or another computer for the classroom? Do we need another security officer or another teacher? Do we need more metal detectors or more trombones for the band?

I'm thankful that none of my schools had surveillance cameras, RFID sensors, police officers or locked doors. If they had I would have been in trouble all the time.

I don't have the answers. I hope that our school security budgets are based on real need and not knee jerk, politically prudent and feel good reactions. I just want every possible dollar spent on real education.


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