Want to Keep Schools Safe? Scrap the Metal Detectors

Question: Which methods of reducing school violence have worked, and which haven’t?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well violence in schools is to some degree a reflection of violence in society and violence in communities.  It’s very odd that we would think we’d have safe schools when we have such a violent country that we live in where people have guns and people being killed in some communities quite regularly.  At the same time violence in schools is often a product of a dysfunctional culture, kids who have disconnected from learning, a strained or weak relationship between the adults and the students because right here in New York City I could take you to schools, some schools are violent, have metal detectors and sometimes right next door same school, no problem with violence, no metal detectors.  What is the difference?  The school that has the positive culture where the kids are connected to learning and have clear goals tend to not have problems with violence and discipline.  So you can’t address violence without addressing the educational mission of a school.  You have to make… Kids who think they’re headed somewhere behave a lot differently than kids who think they’re headed nowhere and that’s about the mission of a school and about the ability of the educators to convey that mission to kids and to instill a sense in them that of hope and possibility.  I think right now we have in the name of safety turned schools increasingly like prisons.  We have zero tolerance policies.  We have police in schools, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and those devices and strategies don’t produce safety.  They produce an environment where in fact where you feel less safe, because if it takes an officer with a gun to keep the school safe then we’re really in trouble.  Safety is a product of relationships.  It’s a product of children being well known.  It’s a product of or a byproduct of children being very clear about they they’re there and having a stake in their own education.  The hardest children to discipline are kids who have given up on learning and so what does that tell you?  It means that we need to figure out a way to make it matter again and if you can’t do that most of the things we try to do in the name of security will never work.

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Question: Why do you believe school shootings in affluent white communities have hurt minority school districts?

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Pedro Noguera:  Sure.  Most of the mass shootings that have occurred in places like Columbine; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and others were in predominantly white suburban communities.  In most cases the assailants were white males who were harassed or bullied by other kids, but what has happened in response to these shootings? Two things.  One is state legislatures have adopted laws to lower the age at which we will prosecute juveniles as adults, so what we’ve seen is an increase in the criminalization of young people, increase in the number of young people going to prison for relatively minor crimes, and secondly this tendency towards turning schools into prison-like institutions, and that particularly happening in urban areas, and so I think this very punitive approach is a real travesty and one that neither makes schools safe nor does it address the core underlying issues.

Recorded on January 28, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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When the response to shootings in affluent schools is to turn schools into prisons, poor districts suffer—and violence doesn’t end.

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