Escalating levels of violence in schools and the widespread community fear that school shootings in particular could happen anywhere have led high school administrators to turn to technology to protect their students. Legislative attention in this area has likewise resulted in greater funding for high-tech school security systems. However, technological responses can have unintended consequences that affect perceived safety levels in schools. While metal detectors and video cameras have been present in schools since the 1980s, new digital technologies are providing additional opportunities for both violence and surveillance.
A metal detector is an electronic implement used to detect the electromagnetic field of metallic objects. These devices have been used in schools as part of an attempt to combat violence by detecting the presence of weapons such as guns and knives among the student population. Introduced in response to inner-city drug problems and the surrounding drug trade, metal detectors have been credited with reducing the number of knives brought into these schools.
Two types of metal detectors are used in schools: hand-held devices and machines fixed to the floor through which students walk. A 2000 study of both middle and high schools found that random metal detectors were used in 4% of public schools, while only 1% required students to pass through fixed metal detectors each day. To prevent accusations of favoritism or discrimination, some schools also use automatic mats that blink red or green lights to select patterns of students for random scanning (e.g., every third or fourth student).
Metal detectors are not a favored method of violence control and are usually introduced only in those schools that report a high incidence of weapons-related violence. Their popularity (or recognized potential for success) has risen and declined at significant moments in the last 20 years. For example, at the end of the 1990s–a decade characterized by school shootings–a CBS News poll showed that 71% of respondents believed metal detectors should be present in schools as basic security. Conversely, in the last few years, several high school administrators have gone on record discouraging their use.
The effectiveness of metal detectors is highly contested, with a number of empirical studies producing conflicting findings. While Green (1999) of the Department of Justice argues that use of these devices makes schools safer, Schreck, Miller, and Gibson (2003) of the Department of Criminal Justice describe them as ineffective. Mayer and Leone (1999) from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in conjunction with the National Center for Education Statistics and the Census Bureau, make the case that metal detectors actually increase social disorder in schools. Likewise, Douglas Thompkins (2000), a former member of a Chicago street gang and now a researcher in criminology and criminal justice, suggests that metal detectors simultaneously decrease violence in schools and create an unhealthy culture of fear. An International Communications Research study also found conflicting views among the general population, with 50% of Americans seeing metal detectors as helpful in preventing school violence and 47% believing they would not help.
In a study of school superintendents in Georgia focusing on their strategies for school security, 97% of respondents reported the use of security cameras in their schools. The cameras are placed in specific locations such as hallways, the cafeteria, parking lots, administrative offices, athletic stadiums, and school buses to allow staff to monitor student behaviors in these areas. Digital video technologies have increased the sophistication of this method of surveillance as videos can be monitored live via any internet connection remotely, allowing 24 hours a day, seven days a week surveillance.
The power of video camera surveillance derives from the possibility that someone could be watching. Some students have even confessed to violations of school rules and policies that were not caught on camera. While anecdotal evidence suggests video cameras in schools have decreased the level of vandalism in particular, their effect on violence is unknown. Research shows that in schools without a history of violence, video surveillance can have a detrimental effect on both students’ and teachers’ perceptions of their personal safety. In schools where gang activity is recorded, gangs are able to capitalize on the culture of fear surrounding surveillance to increase their power and dominance.
Since the high-profile school shootings in the late 1990s, and particularly in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, legislative attention has resulted in increased funding for security technology in U.S. schools. Along with metal detectors and video camera surveillance, technological responses to school violence include motion detectors, intruder alarm monitoring systems, two-way radios and walkie-talkies, lapel microphones, locked doors linked to the fire alarm system to restrict entry to and exit from buildings, and ID card machines (which register attendance, lateness, and discipline records). Pocket grenades for use by teachers are in the planning stage in New York schools. Lie detector (polygraph) tests have also been used to determine whether students were complying with drug and alcohol policies. Polygraphs are rarely used with juveniles, however, and in any case their results may not be admissible when considering disciplinary action. John Devine (1995) of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University’s School of Education argues that school security is a burgeoning industry that aims to introduce these kinds of measures in every school in America.
While the rate of physical violence in schools may have decreased, the incidence of emotional violence in these settings is rising. As students have become more accustomed to and dependent on the use of social networking, instant messaging, and text messaging, the potential for high school students to receive threatening or abusive messages has increased exponentially. Cyberbullying is a very real problem that administrators have struggled to deal with. Many schools have installed firewalls to prevent access to social networking sites from school computers so as to discourage the incidence of bullying online. While this measure addresses the problem during school hours, off-campus cyberbullying continues to run amok. In 2006, a school girl in Missouri committed suicide after fighting with someone whom she thought was a boy online; the girl had actually been talking with the mother of her friend. In response to this incident, several states have passed anti-cyberbullying legislation.
Incidents in a number of countries show that this is an international issue. For example, responses in Australia at both the school and government levels have led to concerns that focusing on specific technologies or sites detracts from the significant abuse suffered by the victims of cyberbullying. For example, YouTube was banned in all schools in the state of Victoria after a video in which a group of 12 boys forced a disabled girl to perform sexual acts and then burned her hair and urinated on her was posted on the popular video-sharing site. In 2008, a high school student in Western Australia was not allowed to sit for his final-year exams because of a speech he gave at a school assembly in which he criticized his principal’s and teachers’ responses to an accident that killed five students in his class. A video of the speech was posted on YouTube, though nothing happened to the student who put the film on YouTube.
The faith placed in technological solutions such as firewalls may not be warranted, as a 16-year-old Australian student demonstrated by cracking that country’s Internet porn filter in less than 40 minutes. A number of private girls’ schools have responded to the problem of cyberbullying outside of school hours by implementing programs that involve consultation between the school administrators, the parents, and the girls. Likewise, NetSafe, a nonprofit organization based in New Zealand (www.netsafe.org.nz), encourages the creation of supportive networks between children, parents, schools, community organizations, and businesses. Its website focuses on education, research, and collective collaboration and allows the anonymous reporting of cyber-offenses, which are then investigated. The site also has links directing youths to telephone help lines and counseling services.
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