Editor’s Note: The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has renewed national conversations about school safety and gun control. New America Media spoke with investigative journalist Annette Fuentes, the author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes the Jailhouse (Verso, 2011), about security in schools and how to prevent another tragedy.
NAM: There’s a growing perception that schools are unsafe – will policing schools solve the problem? Will we see more armed security guards and surveillance systems in schools as a result of Newtown?
Annette Fuentes: It’s interesting that in Newtown the reporting indicates that the school already had a large number of safeguards in place, such as security cameras, a buzzer system at the front door, and a serious array of locks to keep intruders out. What trumped all of that was the high-powered weaponry that Adam Lanza reportedly had and used to burst into the school. So if someone has overwhelming firepower, some of it military grade, nothing a school has will be able to prevent them from doing damage and hurting people. So policing and armed guards, even the idea that the NRA has floated of arming teachers and the principal, really won’t prevent tragedies, and really will increase the number of casualties. More policing and more security hardware are certainly not the answer.
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I’d like to point out also that at Columbine High School, which I visited for the ninth anniversary of the shooting, the school community decided not to install metal detectors at the entrance to the school, or really beef up the security much more than what they had at the time of the 1999 shooting. And to this day, Columbine does not have metal detectors at its doors, nor do they have armed guards at the entrance.
NAM: What makes for a safe school?
AF: In the research that I did for my book, Lockdown High, I found that the ingredients for a safe school certainly vary depending on the location. But researchers in the field of academic achievement and school safety and discipline have found that the existence of security hardware like metal detectors, security cameras, policing, et cetera, actually can create the kind of climate that increases the likelihood of violence and disorder among students. In other words, if you treat kids as if they’re potential criminals, and create a learning environment that’s more prison-like, they’ll behave in a way that reflects that expectation.
To contrast, there’s a school that I profiled called the Urban Academy on New York’s East Side. It’s an alternative public school for students that did not like the traditional public school model. Many of the students were considered perhaps difficult to manage. The principal did away with metal detectors and some of the usual policing technology that had existed at the school prior to his arrival … He created an environment in the school of trust between teachers, students, parents, and others in the community … It’s a school that does have a security guard, but one who acts more as an advisor and guidance counselor than as a police officer. The Urban Academy model, that has no surveillance or security technology or armed policing, has reported no guns or weapons taken from students and no acts of violence, and has a very high percentage of kids graduating and going off to college.
Safety and security are conditions created by strong leadership that is in control of the school and teachers in control of their classrooms, who have received professional development, who understand the dynamics of working with kids, and who do not resort to some of the traditional strategies of discipline. It’s a completely different paradigm.
NAM: Why do you think people are targeting schools in mass shooting incidents like this? What do you think is the root of this?
AF: The Newtown case is not a Columbine-type or Virginia Tech-type. The gunman was not a student at the school. This was not an example of school violence as people like to discuss school violence. We still don’t know why Adam Lanza targeted this school. The reason that a school can be a target is the reason a workplace can be a target – there have been many workplace shootings … It’s important to separate the location from the overriding condition of gun violence, which can happen anywhere … The shooter was a young man with problems – we don’t know what more there is to it. We don’t yet know why he targeted this school. I’m concerned that people will start talking about school violence, and that certainly isn’t applicable in this case … I’m glad to see the public focusing on the issue of gun control. Newtown is different from any of the other mass shootings, and that includes the theater shooting in Aurora. Newtown has put gun control on the front burner in an unprecedented way, and that’s a good thing.
It’s more than ironic that we have just learned that California’s Teachers’ Retirement System had invested with the equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which owns Bushmaster [a firearms maker]. In essence, the teachers’ retirement system owned part of Bushmaster … The shooting is forcing everyone to look at the business of guns and the dollars and cents behind the very powerful gun lobby, because ultimately it is all about the dollars. When people talk about school safety and school violence, it’s a way to avoid talking about the real issue, which is the availability of guns, especially semi-automatic guns, which are the real threat to students.
NAM: What do you think we should do going forward from Newtown?
AF: I’m heartened that the national conversation in the last few days has really focused on gun control. That is a major step forward from mass shootings in the past. Gun control really is the only way to prevent this kind of horror from happening again. At the same time, it would be a mistake to put energy and resources into making public schools into fortresses, squandering precious tax dollars and limited school budgets on the technology and policing resources that people think make schools and kids safer but that really don’t. The best way to make schools safe is to create trusting learning environments. Certainly an elementary school like Sandy Hook was purely a vulnerable target that could only be made impenetrable with a barbed wire fence or a concrete wall, but that is not the way to educate kids. You can’t educate kids inside a prison. Whatever we finally learn about Adam Lanza, no one could have been safe – he had these weapons of mass destruction at his disposal, in his own home, and that is the scariest part.