Let's Not Turn Our Schools Into Prisons

How many times in the past five years have you heard the phrase“let’s not turn our schools into prisons?” Many are quick to utter the phrase as soon as security measures like metal detectors, security cameras, access control systems or school resource officer programs are mentioned. Unfortunately, far too many of our schools are prisons without them — prisons of fear. I do not suggest that every school should implement every one of these measures, but there are many schools that need, but do not have them. Too many of our children have been allowed to die in schools where appropriate security measures were not in place. The“lets not turn our schools into prisons” line sometimes comes from ignorance. This situation most often involves a lack of awareness as to the real level of risk in a particular school and lack of knowledge as to how such measures can be implemented without making children feel like prisoners.

Some parents and school officials still question the need for school resource officers in their schools, particularly armed officers. I will never forget the words of the principal of Pearl High School when he said that he never even considered the need for a school resource officer until he saw children dying in his school. Interestingly enough, the adults make a much bigger mountain out of the school resource officer issue than the students we are so concerned with. A statewide survey of Florida high school students revealed that the school resource officer was identified as the “most trusted adult” in school by 94 percent of students surveyed.

Another common concern that confounds me is the issue of security cameras. While cameras are sometimes overrated in their effectiveness, they can make a significant difference if used appropriately. I once met with school officials and elected board members in a fine restaurant in Maryland. I was informed that a number of parents strenuously objected to the idea of security cameras in local schools. As we discussed the topic, I noticed that there was a security camera in place for each table at the restaurant. I suppose those same parents would refuse to dine at what I was told was among the most popular eating establishments in the community. It is funny how people will readily accept security cameras in a bank, convenience store or hospital, but will balk at the idea of using the same devices to protect what is most precious to them.

We are also apt to hear the prison phrase applied when metal detection is discussed. Since most students and parents are not aware of the actual rate of weapons carried in our schools, they may be inclined to raise a considerable fuss if metal detection is mentioned as an option, unless a child is actually killed in their school. With less intrusive options available for schools, such as random metal detection programs, it is interesting how it takes an actual incident to change people’s perspectives. I was asked to observe and evaluate the metal detection program at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. According to Bob Padhrasky of Garrett Metal Detectors, the “Salt Lake City Winter Olympics was by far the largest and most comprehensive security event ever held.” Mr. Padhrasky maintains that more than 475 walk-through and 950 hand-held metal detectors were used for screening. When contrasted to the 60 walk-through units relied upon at the LA games, the metal detection program was intensive.

Other security measures, such as elaborate identification cards, security cameras and the presence of large numbers of law enforcement officers were also evident. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games were clearly a high security event. And how did the public respond to this intensive security? While reviewing metal detection checkpoints at the games and nearby facilities such as Temple Square, I heard only positive comments. According to a front-page article in the Desert News, the metal detection program was “wildly successful.”

Four hundred people were asked “How satisfied were you with the level of security at the 2002 Winter Games?” Eighty-seven percent said they were very satisfied, 9 percent were somewhat satisfied, no one said they were not very satisfied or not at all satisfied and four percent said they didn’t know. No one said they felt like they were in prison. These responses echoed the attitude of the people that I spoke to at screening stations. After standing in line for 45 minutes, they repeatedly said that the wait in line was worth the peace of mind that would allow them to enjoy the games.

Forty-two percent of the respondents of the aforementioned survey reported that they were very confident that security was tight enough to foil “any terrorist plot,” and another 47 percent said they were somewhat confident in the same level of safety. The final result is that the Atlanta Games will be remembered for a bombing, while the Salt Lake Games will be remembered for the games themselves. How will your schools be remembered?

Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years. He has authored 14 books, lectures frequently across the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions worldwide. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.