More than 5,000 NYPD school safety agents patrol the hallways of New York City’s schools. But are they making them safer? Is there a different way? The following adapted excerpt from “Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse,” by Annette Fuentes (Verso, May 2011) finds anecdotal reports and statistical evidence that tighter security does not always make for safer schools.

Herb Mack recalls the first day he and Ann Cook, co-founders of the Urban Academy, came into the old building that now houses their alternative public high school. “I took the hand-held metal detectors and locked them in a closet,” says Mack. There were walk-through scanners, too, installed at entrances to the old Julia Richman High School, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A dozen School Security Agents, as the school police are known in the Big Apple, used to search students every morning with both kinds of scanners. It took six months to get permission from the city’s Board of Education and then Mack had the scanners torn down from the doorways. Until then, they were never used. “We didn’t for a day walk through the things. You couldn’t possibly have a welcoming school if you lined kids up to be searched. Our feeling is the only way to have safe schools is to have the kids be willing to talk to you and to the security folks about the problems they anticipate,” Mack says. “We have probably a hundred windows at ground level. We have thirteen entrances to the building. If they want to get a gun in, they can push it through a window. The scanners are such a political decision.”

Then there was the “cage,” an eight-by-twelve foot, floor-to-ceiling wire box that occupied part of the old guidance counselor office. “We thought that it must have been a storage space and thought it was strange that there were no shelves for papers or boxes. We didn’t know what it was,” Mack recalls. “A year or two after we’d been here, a woman came in who used to be the assistant principal for guidance. She said, ‘This was my office.’ We asked her about the metal box and she said, ‘Oh, that was the place we locked the kids up in until the police came.’” Mack and Cook tore the cage down, too, and made the office into a large, open space for teachers’ desks and a common room for students.

The Urban Academy opened in 1995 as the anchor among six alternative public schools—four high schools, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school and a program for autistic children—that operate as autonomous entities within the eighty-year-old building, now known as the Julia Richman Education Complex. Altogether 1,800 students attend classes in the complex, a haven for students who may not fit in the traditional setting offered in the city’s regular public schools.

The Urban Academy, like its founders, is a pioneer in the small school movement that has been embraced by progressive educators and, in a limited way, by New York City’s education officials as an antidote to the impersonal, overcrowded and ineffective high schools that came to dominate the largest public school system in the nation. The Urban Academy’s 120 students are a diverse swath of the city itself, and many landed there after unsatisfying stints at other schools that failed to engage them or stifled them with regulations.

While the school is nationally recognized for its success as a small school, one component of the philosophy behind Mack and Cook’s success that often escapes detection is their approach to security and discipline. Tearing down the scanners was both a literal and metaphorical statement of the Urban Academy’s rejection of an authoritarian, corrections-like strategy for making their students and classrooms safe. “There is a difference between security and discipline,” says Mack. “Discipline is talking to kids. We have a culture but it certainly isn’t one in which the normal discipline takes place.”

Security in the old Julia Richman building was under the direction of school security agents, who were put under the control of the New York Police Department in 1998 by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A dozen SSAs would supervise the morning ritual of student scanning and searching, after which six officers were dispatched to other duties, leaving a full-time staff of six. One long-time female SSA who had good rapport with students and embodied the approach to security that Mack and Cook favored was made supervisor, after lobbying by the co-directors. She sets the tone for the other officers by dealing respectfully with students. “We work closely together. She understands that security is provided by her talking to the kids. It’s a very important part of the building,” Mack explains. “We don’t take any transfer agents. We take them right out of the training program so they haven’t been socialized into abusive practices. Our supervisor makes them understand that there are no confrontations with kids. We’ve had situations where they’ll say, ‘You have to watch out for so-and-so because there might be a problem.’ Kids are our best safety valve. And that’s because they know they can talk to us.”

Each of the schools within the Julia Richman complex has its own culture and its own principal, who can make decisions on everything, including dress codes. So when the city police decreed that students were forbidden to wear “do-rags” on their heads because they said it was gang attire, Urban’s administrators first checked with their constituents. “We went to kids and said, ‘Do you think we should outlaw do-rags?’” Mack says. “They said it’s not a gang thing, and we agreed with them. We became the only school in the building that didn’t outlaw do-rags. The other schools went along with the ban. That meant our security agents had to be willing to let us ignore what the police were saying. They were able to differentiate our kids from the others. We’ve established that the principal, not the SSAs or the police, run the school.”

As for incidents of violence or disciplinary problems, which Mack is required to report to the city Department of Education, well, he says there aren’t any. “I’ve never had any kind of incident to report. If the security agents get weapons, I haven’t seen them,” Mack says.

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In a city whose schools and students are stereotyped as violent and failing, the success of the Urban Academy gives lie to the rationales behind the Lockdown High model of high-tech security equipment and harsh zero tolerance disciplinary policies in creating safe and secure schools. In fact, a mounting body of research contradicts the fundamental principles behind punitive, zero tolerance strategies as the most effective approach to school safety and discipline, while also revealing their harmful effects on children.

Authoritarian strategies have been predicated on a faulty foundation—the idea that school violence is epidemic and growing worse and demanding drastic measures at the cost of student rights and educational quality. Now, while it is true that violence and disciplinary problems have been and will always be present in schools to a greater or lesser degree, communities and administrators can choose to address them with strategies that are more appropriate to the basic mission of schools: to educate. By surrendering to the Lockdown High model, school board members, principals and teachers have abdicated their responsibility and lost the opportunity to make safety and discipline part of the curriculum. It is true that the zero tolerance is an appealing and often easier choice when schools face intense pressure to perform under federal testing mandates and budget cuts force out programs considered nonessential. And the political pressure behind punitive discipline policies and security fixes, such as metal detectors, can be enormous. But the failure of zero tolerance, reflected in the epidemic of students suspended and pushed out of schools, is becoming harder to ignore.

One of the first and now most widely cited studies on school violence and strategies for creating safer schools was published back in 1999 by Matthew Mayer and Peter Leone. The authors, professors of education, analyzed data on school crime from the National Crime Victimization Survey, which queried public school students from twelve to nineteen years old. Their findings suggested that schools with “a higher level of disorder” had more security measures, including metal detectors, locked doors, and security guards or other staff patrolling hallways, and that those very security measures may actually contribute to the school’s disorder. They called it a “cycle of disorder” in which restrictive controls in school create a “reciprocal, destructive relationship” with students, who “tend to engage in more acts of self-protection and live in a heightened state of fear.”

Acknowledging that some might argue that the presence of high-security measures is a necessary response to the disorder and violence, Mayer and Leone suggest a different interplay: “Creating an unwelcoming, almost jail-like, heavily scrutinized environment may foster the violence and disorder school administrators hope to avoid.” Schools with the least disruption, they found, were those where students understood the “system of law”—the rules of conduct. The solution, Mayer and Leone state, is “for schools to focus their efforts; effective communication rather than control is the best way to establish the legitimacy of the school’s system of law in the minds of students.”

A 2002 study of school violence and prevention by a private contractor and funded by the U.S. Department of Education offers a more nuanced and complex profile of conditions in schools than the view publicly espoused by education officials. It also offers more evidence to bolster Mayer and Leone’s theory that high security measures may be a cause of—not a solution to—school disorder. The DOE study surveyed public high school principals about crime in their schools and found that 60 percent of violence was concentrated in 4 percent of all schools. While urban schools with large numbers of low-income and non-white students tended to have the highest levels of crime, 36 percent of schools with high crime rates were in rural areas, contradicting “the image of school violence being solely restricted to central cities,” the study stated. And as in the Mayer and Leone study, it found that schools with higher crime rates were more likely to use security measures such as random metal detectors, police and security personnel. By contrast, schools with lower or no violent crime put a higher priority on counseling and violence-prevention education, including peer-mediation and conflict- resolution programs. Unfortunately, the study’s scope was limited and did not go beyond merely describing what exists to begin to answer the all important question: “whether programs were implemented in an effective way and/or significantly reduced the amount of violence in the school.”

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After nearly two decades of zero tolerance and authoritarian discipline, the paradox persists. Why do schools with the most security measures and most punitive discipline still tend to have more reported incidents of violence or crime? If the punitive, policing approach were effective, then incidents and student suspensions should be going down. The fact that juvenile crime rates outside the schoolhouse continue to fall makes the situation inside even more incongruous.

In 2006, the preponderance of evidence that students and academic achievement were being damaged by the continuation of punitive discipline motivated the American Psychological Association to weigh in on the issue. At its annual convention, the professional organization released a report by its Zero Tolerance Task Force that gleaned evidence from two decades of research into school climate and discipline. Called simply “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?,” the APA taskforce, which included Indiana University’s Russell Skiba, answered the question with a resounding “No.”

The report identifies and then rebuts the fundamental premises behind zero tolerance policies, including the idea that serious school violence is “out-of-control”; that suspending students for misdeeds creates a better learning climate for other students; that punitive discipline is a deterrent to future misbehavior; and that parents and communities overwhelmingly support zero tolerance. The report also highlights the lopsided impact for black students, a result it attributes to poor teacher training and lack of cultural competence with diverse student populations. And most important, the psychologists address child and adolescent development and how zero tolerance is an inappropriate, even harmful strategy for correcting behavioral problems, especially those with emotional or neurological roots.

The report prescribes a series of reforms to school disciplinary policies, recommending a drastic scaling back of the most harsh punishments and adopting flexibility in disciplining individual students. In place of zero tolerance, the task force called for strategies to reconnect alienated youth within a school community that fosters connectedness among teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Improved training for teachers in classroom management and cultural competence are also vital.