Expansion of Police Power in Public Schools and the Vanishing Rights of Students

By Beger, Randall R. | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Expansion of Police Power in Public Schools and the Vanishing Rights of Students


Beger, Randall R., Social Justice


Look inside a high school, and you are looking in a mirror, under bright lights. How we treat our children, what they see and learn from us, tell us what is healthy and what is sick--and more about who we are than we may want to know (Gibbs, 1999).

Schools cannot expect their students to learn the lessons of good citizenship when school authorities themselves disregard the fundamental principles underpinning our constitutional freedoms (Justice Brennan, dissenting in Doe v. Renfrow, 1981).

Introduction

GROWING PUBLIC ANXIETY OVER ACTS OF VIOLENCE IN SCHOOLS HAS PROMPTED educators and state lawmakers to adopt drastic measures to improve the safety of students. In the wake of recent high-profile campus shootings, schools have become almost prison-like in terms of security and in diminishing the rights of students. Ironically, a repressive approach to school safety may do more harm than good by creating an atmosphere of mistrust and alienation that causes students to misbehave (Noguera, 1995; Hyman and Perone, 1998).

This article examines law enforcement expansion in schools and the vanishing Fourth Amendment rights of public school children. The climate of fear generated by recent school shootings has spurred school administrators to increase security through physical means (locks, surveillance cameras, metal detectors) and to hire more police and security guards. State lawmakers have eagerly jumped on the school safety bandwagon by making it easier to punish school children as adults for a wide range of offenses that traditionally have been handled informally by teachers. Instead of safeguarding the rights of students against arbitrary police power, our nation's courts are granting police and school officials more authority to conduct searches of students. Tragically, little if any Fourth Amendment protection now exists to shield students from the raw exercise of police power in public schools.

The Gap Between the New School Security Culture and the Realities of School Violence

In response to the latest string of sensationalized school shootings, schools everywhere have made safety a top priority. A recent U.S. Department of Education survey of public schools found that 96% required guests to sign in before entering the school building, 80% had a closed campus policy that forbids students to leave campus for lunch, and 53% controlled access to their school buildings (Gegax et al., 1998). A National School Board Association survey of over 700 school districts throughout the United States found that 39% of urban school districts use metal detectors, 75% use locker searches, and 65% use security personnel (Welsh et al., 2000). Schools have introduced stricter dress codes, put up barbed-wire security fences, banned book bags and pagers, and have added "lock down drills" and "SWAT team" rehearsals to their safety programs. Officials in Dallas, Texas, unveiled a $41 million state-of-the-art "security conscious" school that has 37 surveillance cameras, six metal detectors, and a security command center for monitoring the building and grounds (Applebome, 1995: B8). At Tewksbury Memorial High School in Massachusetts, 20-video cameras bring the school into the local police department via remote access technology. According to one source, "the video cameras record almost everything students say and do at school--eating in the cafeteria, cramming in the library, chatting in the halls" (Current Events , 2002: 3). The new security culture in public schools has stirred debate over whether schools have turned into "learning prisons" (Chaddock, 1999:15) where the students unwittingly become "guinea pigs" to test the latest security devices.

Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of schools have adopted zero tolerance policies under which students receive predetermined penalties for any offense, no matter how minor. Students have been expelled or suspended from school for sharing aspirin, Midol, and Certs tablets, and for bringing nail clippers and scissors to class (Lozada, 1998). …

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