When security measures are inadequate, students fear for their safety. Excessive policing also causes issues. 

By Sarah Mahoney

Drugs. Guns. Sexual assault. Chances are, you've read these words in a recent headline that ends with "...in local school." As a result, heightened security measures are becoming increasingly common. Some 60% of public high schools use surveillance cameras and drug-sniffing dogs, and many places conduct random locker checks.

Looking at Safety Measures

For the most part, parents seem to welcome these strategies. A national CNN poll in 2002 found that 70% of parents think random drug testing is a good idea. But others are so opposed they've actually fought to stop it. The tension between those who want tougher measures and those who fear that Big Brother is trampling over kids' rights extends far beyond PTA meetings. Recently the safety issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided that a school's right to come down on drug culture trumped a student's right to wave his pro-drug banner. But it was hardly a slam dunk: The court vote was split five to four.

As in all good debates, there's enough evidence on both sides to give the spin-doctors plenty to play with. But there are no cookie-cutter answers. What's right for one school might be wrong for another, depending on budgets and specific challenges. Family Circle took a closer look at three of the most controversial safety measures now on school-board agendas around the country.

Metal Detectors


Who's doing it: Long a fixture at many urban schools, they now are used in nearly 13% of all high schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Believers say: Preventing a single shooting makes them worthwhile. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18% of high school kids say they've carried a weapon in the last month. And students themselves are demanding more protection. In Boston, where school violence increased 14% from 2002 to 2006, a student group recently lobbied for stepped-up screenings. "When kids know there are metal detectors, I think the likelihood of them bringing weapons to schools would be diminished—significantly," says Ronan Matthew, principal of Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas.

Critics say: "It creates an atmosphere of degradation," explains Cecelia Blewer, a New York City parent of two teens. "I hate that we make kids start the day with something that says, 'We assume the worst about you.' It makes them think, 'Well, if the school doesn't trust me, I'm not going to trust the school,' and that affects how well they learn." Besides, she says, "anything can be used as a weapon—fists, books, a chair. The focus also needs to be on the climate at school."

Reality check: There's little evidence that detectors can stop determined shooters. And kids know that. A recent National Economic & Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) survey of teens found that fewer than half of those attending schools with metal detectors felt safer because of them. And there may be a better approach: "The number one way we find out about weapons in schools is when kids trust an adult enough to tell him or her that another student has one," says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. "Teachers, administrators, safety officials and support staff have to make it a point to interact with students and build positive relationships."

Police in Schools


Who's doing it: Who isn't? Some 68% of middle and high school students report that they are seeing security guards or officers on site.

Believers say: Police presence makes kids safer. "We had a lockdown last year when a gunman was holding people hostage near our school," says Dyanne Baro, of Miramar, Florida, who has three children, 19, 9 and 6. "It made such a difference having an officer right there."

Critics say: An excessive police presence is frightening: The NESRI survey found that a third of students say that it makes them feel threatened. "School is not a pleasure for these children; it's a punishment," says Roslyn Broadnax of South Central Los Angeles, who has two kids, 18 and 16, and often volunteers at their high school. "It's terrible to see good kids feel humiliated."

Reality check: Overly aggressive cops can make teens feel like criminals. "Almost every student [polled] said that heavy police presence makes schools feel like jails," says the NESRI report. Some schools luck out and get seasoned pros who genuinely bond with students. And others end up with bullies.

Random Drug Testing


Who's doing it: About 1,000 school districts now randomly test students, with half of those districts receiving $34 million in federal aid, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Believers say: Drug use is still high among teens. And kids can always opt out of testing (typically, schools are legally allowed to test kids who are on athletic teams, participate in extracurricular activities or have parking privileges). And since schools aren't allowed to report those who test positive to the police, results are used only to get kids help.

Critics say: Marching a kid into a restroom and listening while they pee is way too intrusive. "This is an example of a public institution reaching not only into your children's lives but also into their bodies," says Bill Sciambi of Pittstown, New Jersey, who has a 15-year-old and has worked with other parents to block drug testing when it was proposed at Delaware River Regional High School. "The money spent on drug testing should instead be put toward drug-abuse counseling and more extracurricular activities." (A test costs anywhere from $10 to $30.) Doctors agree. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, opposes such tests because they can give false results. And some teens say testing may push kids to try drugs that don't show up in urine tests, such as Ecstasy.

Reality check: Solid data exists on both sides. A University of Michigan study found that testing doesn't work. Another study of Indiana high schools found that it does. No matter which data you believe, experts say, the danger is that parents might be lulled into believing there's a single, silver-bullet solution to teen drug use. "The issue is complex," says Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph.D., director of the Safety First Project, part of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes testing. "It's naive to think testing will solve the problem." Even advocates of testing say it's only one part of the process. "We need to address the lack of drug treatment options for teens," says Bill Judge, an Oak Park, Illinois-based lawyer who consults with schools on their drug testing policies "It's our job to protect kids while providing the best possible learning environment."

How Safe Is Your School, Really?

Federal statistics say that despite the well-publicized shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine High, the rate of serious crimes such as homicide and sexual assault at schools has decreased. But between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of public schools experiencing one or more violent incidents rose from 71% to 81%, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Yet most parents know next to nothing about the actual crime rates in their child's school. "There is no federal mandatory school crime reporting and tracking requirement for K-12 schools," says Trump. And historically, he says, schools have tended to downplay violence. (Have you ever seen a "Police Blotter" in the PTA newsletter?)

To make such statistics more available, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) has introduced a bill aimed at making schools more accountable by improving reporting of safety issues and informing parents about them. Want to find out about crime in your school? Ask the school resource officer (who may be able to tell you how many kids he's caught smoking pot or drinking in the parking lot) or call your police department.

Basic Safety Measures Every School Needs Right Now

Don't let the debate du jour distract you. Experts know that there are three proven—if low-tech—ways to keep kids on track during the teen years.

  1. Beef up extracurricular activities. Research from Connecticut College and the Minneapolis Department of Health link after-school activities—which keep kids occupied during perilous after-school hours—to a lower risk of drug use and higher personal satisfaction.
  2. Ask teachers and aides to get more involved with students. It's a low-cost way to make schools safer, says security expert Ken Trump. "The value of a visible adult who knows the students can't be overstated," he says, especially in hallways, restrooms and parking lots.
  3. Lobby for programs for drug users. Ask what your school has available for kids in trouble, including special training for school nurses and counselors, and a referral network for other professionals. If the answer is "not much," press for a more comprehensive approach.

Is Your Teen Ticked Off or Terrified?

Done right, a school's security measures should make kids feel safe. So regularly check in with your child and ask him what he thinks. If he's unhappy—and angry enough to fight for change—offer your support. Research shows that the more actively involved kids are in shaping school programs and policies, the more committed they are to their education. If you disagree with the school as well, set a good example by sending an e-mail to the principal or school board. It's an important way for you to model constructive behavior for your kids.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the October 17, 2007, issue of Family Circle magazine.