Putting a Lock on Students

Two newspaper items caught my eye during the last days of the last year. Both involved locking doors.

The first concerned a high school that was locking students into their classrooms because of fights that had taken place in the school’s corridors.

The second concerned a public library that was locking its doors on school days from 2:45 to 5 p.m. to keep students out. It’s hard to imagine a situation where students want to get into a library and the library wants to discourage them, but that’s what’s happening.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The library is across the street from a middle school and many of the students are full of pent-up, young-teen energy. They weren’t using the library as a place to study and read, but as a place to hang out. And in doing that, they were making more noise and messes than the librarians could tolerate.

But, what struck me was the common theme — kids are acting up, so we must lock them in, or out. Not exactly a positive educational response.

Lock Them In

The high school situation, unfortunately, involves students of different ethnic backgrounds moving into a very large high school. With students moving around the building all the time, fights, often between different student populations, have escalated, and the locking in was seen as a way to calm the situation.

It may work, at least for a little while, but it would seem to me that there are more constructive and permanent approaches that might be tried. For example, instead of locking students into rooms, perhaps the school can be broken into smaller units with students staying within a limited area as they move from class to class, rather than having to traverse a large building with many twists and turns.

In that way, students stay within sight of a small group of teachers, are in the corridors for shorter periods of time, and have less opportunity to run into other students with whom they might fight. In other words, attack the problem with a good educational solution – establish small schools in which every student is known to the teachers.

Lock Them Out

The second item has a similar theme. In Maplewood, NJ, the town libraries are locking their doors for more than two hours when school closes to keep middle school students out. It’s a strange turn of events when libraries exclude students, but apparently there are good reasons. Many of the students come to the library to study but others, with both parents working, use the facility as an after-school activity center until one of the parents is able to pick them up and take them home.

So what will those students — both those who study and those who are rowdy — do now? One older teen put it succinctly:“kids will get into real mischievous activities with the library closed.”

Everybody in Maplewood seems to agree that middle school students need a place where they can be noisy at the end of a school day. From this distance, the obvious place ought to be the existing middle school, which has a gymnasium a cafeteria, its own library, as well as other places and spaces where appropriate activities for middle school students can be offered and supervised. It has been a regular theme of this column for the past 11 years that schools need to be conceived and constructed as community buildings, rather than simply as schools. This is a perfect example of how a school building could be a community building.

I’m not pointing a finger at Maplewood — reports from that comfortable suburban community indicate that there are people already at work trying to solve the problem in a less draconian way. But it’s a problem in other communities, too. Middle school students need a safe place to let off steam after school. Public libraries are not the best place for that. Existing school buildings may be.

School administrators need to take the lead in organizing a proper community response — one that may include making greater use of the school building itself.

In both of these communities officials had a significant problem with teen-agers acting inappropriately. And in both cases, the solution was to lock things up or down, rather than to attack the underlying problems. Fences may make good neighbors, but locks don’t seem to me to be a good way to deal with normal teenagers acting inappropriately.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."