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After Parkland, Don't 'Turn Our Schools Into Prisons,' Says Education Activist

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has renewed calls among many conservatives for heightening school security. But others say that approach misses the point, and risks undermining both the learning environment and trust between students and faculty by making schools feel like prisons.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Pedro Noguera ( @PedroANoguera), professor of education at UCLA and director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools.

Interview Highlights

On the danger in hardening schools

“If you think about it, the purpose of school is to create an environment where kids can learn, where they are able to develop and explore and, hopefully, to grow, and you don’t do that in an unsafe atmosphere, for sure. But you also don’t do it in an atmosphere where there’s a hyper sense of security. Security tends to actually make us feel more stressed and less able to relax when there are people around with guns who are patrolling. So, I think it’s something we need to be very careful about. The real work we need to do has to take place in our society to make our society safer than it is right now.

“If you think about the social contract, in which safety is premised, that the idea is that we’re not safe simply because we have police officers with guns. We’re safe because people respect the laws. We’re safe because we respect each other. And we need to find ways to reinforce those bonds of solidarity in our society that allow us to live a safe and comfortable life. And if we don’t have that, if we live in a society where there are too many people who are alienated and estranged, and where so many people have access to weapons, then we would find that all of us are vulnerable, whether we are at school or church or at a movie theater. And so we need to really figure out what are we going to do to not only reduce the availability of guns, but to strengthen the bonds that keep society safe and maintain a civil level of social relationships.”

On how schools with a majority population of color have been dealing with security

“In urban schools, it tends to be that the nature of violence is different. It tends to be that there are concerns about safety coming from the neighborhood. But it also tends to be that when there are violent incidents in schools, they’re rarely random. They’re rarely someone just shooting up everyone. Rather, it’s individuals who have conflict with one another engaging in violence, and so it’s a different nature, and so you have to take different precautions to address those kinds of problems.”

On metal detectors in schools

“That is actually very ineffective, because if you just think about it, there’s so many other ways to get a weapon into a school other than going through the front door. So again, if you’re just relying on security, you’re not going to really keep a school safe. If kids know and trust the adults, they’ll let you know if a problem is brewing. They’ll let you know if a child, another student, has a weapon on them.”

On being able to feel free and open at school

“There is a benefit to those feelings. And I think that we don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to, in the name of security, turn our schools into prisons. I like to point out to people, prisons are not safe places, so why would that be the model? Safety, as I said, is a product of relationships. It’s when we know each other, when we are looking out for each other, when students feel connected, that schools are ultimately safer. And that’s what we need to invest in. Monies, right now, that we’re investing in metal detectors and security guards would be better spent on counselors and social workers and psychologists, the people who can serve as a resource to children. Again, it’s not to say there aren’t times when more security is needed. But I think if that’s the only thing we rely on, we will find ourselves really damaging the learning environment for many of our kids.”

On schools making the steps

“I can think of many schools like that, including schools that are in very challenging neighborhoods. And, again, it’s because of the time spent building relationships. I work with a school like that in Los Angeles now. It’s surrounded by gangs. It’s a very poor community. They haven’t had a fight at the school in seven years. But they spend the first day of school just building relationships. And what I’ve heard from the teachers there is that students will approach them and let them know when there are problems because they’ve taken time to build a relationship and establish some trust. And so while it might seem trite, the fact is that trust and strong relationships are a security measure.”

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