Historically, school crimes generated very little interest among policymakers until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a rash of school shootings and the ushering in of crack cocaine afflicted schools across the United States. In fact, during the past decade, more than 300 school-associated violent deaths occurred on or near school campuses in America. In 1992-1993 alone, 42 student homicides occurred on school premises throughout the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 78% of schools experienced one or more incidents of violent crime in the 2005-2006 school year. Seventeen percent experienced one or more serious violent incidents, 46% experienced one or more thefts, and 68% experienced another type of crime.
In fact, since the shootings at Columbine High School, police departments across the country have drastically changed their response tactics to shooting incidents occurring on high school campuses. Police officers now employ active shooter response tactics when responding to shootings at a high school. The active shooter tactic requires the initial responding officers at the scene of a school shooting to immediately pursue and establish contact with the shooter, so as to contain, capture, or neutralize the shooter. This approach represents a dramatic shift in police response tactics for violent incidents occurring at school settings. Historically, the initial officers arriving at a school shooting would simply secure the scene until specially trained officers, such as SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team members, were deployed to the site. One of the fatal lessons learned form the Columbine High School shootings is that it is imperative for responding officers to react immediately and without delay to school shootings so as to minimize casualties.
As a result of the dramatic rise in school violence in the 1990s and early 2000s, policymakers across the United States intensified their efforts to enhance school safety measures and implemented a variety of security tactics, including the use of metal detectors, zero-tolerance security polices mandating expulsion or suspension for violations of school safety policies, the use of electronic surveillance cameras, and the assignment of sworn police officers to patrol schools. Among these new school safety measures, the use of armed police officers and video surveillance cameras are arguably the most significant because of their authoritarian and intrusive nature.
The issue of police and the use of electronic surveillance in school settings has always been a matter of intense legal debate. In many states, juveniles are required by law to attend high school until they reach maturity, which is generally considered 18 years of age. Within this legal mandate, juveniles are required to report to school for the majority of the year, normally 5 days per week, where they are subjected to a variety of intrusive school policies, rules, and regulations, which may include the use of metal detectors, electronic surveillance cameras, and the search and seizure of their persons and property, including lockers. In the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although students do not forfeit all Fourth Amendment rights to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure at school, school officials do not need a search warrant to search a student or a student’s possessions. Additionally, the Supreme Court established that school officials need only reasonable suspicion that the search will produce evidence the student violated a state law or school policy before engaging in such a search. In summary, high school students are legally required to attend school, where they have little or no legal authority to refuse to comply with school-mandated security tactics.
Currently, more than 75% of all new schools in the United States are being equipped with video surveillance systems. The most popular school surveillance devices are digital or analog cameras for video recording, but other technologies in use in this setting include metal detectors, ID cards, Internet tracking, biometrics, transparent lockers and book bags, electronic gates, and two-way radios. On September 17, 2008, the School Safety Enhancements Act was passed. The bill includes a $50 million initiative to purchase closed-circuit surveillance equipment for schools.
Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of police officers assigned to high schools across the United States, according to Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) data, more than one-third of all sheriffs’ offices and almost half of all local police departments have sworn officers in schools. It is estimated that more than 17,000 school resource officers (SROs) are assigned permanently to schools. In a survey of U.S. public schools, more than 68% of high schools with 1,000 or more students reported the presence of an SRO on campus. The official duties of an SRO–who is considered a hybrid of educational, correctional, and law enforcement official–vary. According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), their responsibilities may include assisting in delinquency prevention programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance and Education (D.A.R.E.), patrolling the school grounds, traffic supervision, assisting with the control of disruptive students, intelligence gathering for criminal investigations, attending parent and faculty meetings, and providing in-service training to faculty and staff personnel.
Today, the new question facing high schools across the United States is how far schools must go to create a safe and secure environment for students in an era of global terrorism. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is conducting training at high schools across the country, educating faculty and staff on crisis response and emergency management techniques in preparation for potential terrorist attacks occurring at or near high school campuses.
- Brown, B. (2006). Understanding and assessing school police officers: A conceptual and methodological comment. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34, 591-604.
- Managing your schools: Under threat of terrorism. (n.d.) National School Safety Center. Retrieved from http://www.schoolsafety.us/