Power

I went to high school in a high-security fortress. You don’t want that for your kids.

Upping security at schools makes students paranoid and miserable; it doesn’t make them safe.
Power

I went to high school in a high-security fortress. You don’t want that for your kids.

Upping security at schools makes students paranoid and miserable; it doesn’t make them safe.

I was 16 years old on April 20, 1999, when two teens in a central Colorado town walked into a high school with shotguns, homemade bombs, a carbine rifle, and a TEC-9, killing 13 people and injuring 24 more before committing suicide. I was 660 miles away, in Texas, and I had no idea how much the fallout from Columbine would change my life.

In 1999, I was a weird teenager in my freshman year, prone to wearing all black and reading books instead of paying attention to my teacher. I was a good student, but I didn’t like going to class and experienced some garden-variety bullying: physical and verbal intimidation that rarely got overtly violent.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was extremely privileged. Allen, Texas is a suburb north of Dallas with a population of around 99,000 and an obscene median income. It’s also one of the safest cities in the country. If you’ve ever heard of Allen at all, it may be because the district built a $60 million football stadium for its high school team.

The day after the massacre in Colorado, I went to class like it was a normal day. I didn’t know it yet, but my classmates and I wouldn’t end up finishing up the academic year. Days after the shooting, a series of bomb threats would cause a wave of panic throughout the city, leading to multiple school evacuations and, eventually, administrators shutting down the entire district. The schools reopened for the last few weeks of the semester, but kids didn’t go back to class.

High school already sucks. Believe me when I tell you that a massive uptick in security makes it worse.

When we returned to school in August, this time to a brand new multimillion-dollar campus, things were different. Teachers ran metal detectors at the entrance. Armed police officers roamed the halls, which were outfitted with security cameras. Teachers and cops stopped kids at random and searched their bags; there were no lockers, and kids had to wear mesh or clear backpacks so they couldn’t smuggle in guns or drugs. School didn’t feel safe; it felt like a guarded fortress.

Almost 20 years later, it feels like history is repeating itself. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this February reignited the debate around gun control and school safety, some politicians are using the same logic as my school district did: Just outfit schools with cops, cameras, and metal detectors, and everything will go away.

President Donald Trump wants to arm teachers — and a school district in northern Georgia has moved forward with plans to do just that. Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed plan for making schools safer involves more cops in schools, metal detectors, and bulletproof glass. In March, he signed into law a smaller version of that plan, which raises the age requirements to buy firearms in the state, sets aside funds for mental health counseling, and allows trained social workers to carry guns in public schools. The STOP School Violence Act of 2018 — which has bipartisan support and proposes distributing $50 million in federal grant money for public schools to hire more cops, among other things — is working its way through congress. The bill includes the use of “evidence-based strategies and programs to prevent violence,” and indicates those strategies should include the use of “appropriate technologies,” such as metal detectors.

The conversation has intensified since a shooting at Sante Fe High School in Texas claimed 10 lives on May 18. “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses,” Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said during a press conference after the shooting. “There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit… Maybe we need to look at limiting the entrances and exits into our schools.” In a follow-up interview, he blamed school shootings on violent video games and advocated for arming teachers.

Trust me. It won’t work. High school already sucks. Believe me when I tell you that a massive uptick in security makes it worse.

Allen High School, 2006

Allen High School, 2006

Two days after Columbine, administrators at Curtis Middle School in Allen school discovered a fake hit list and called the police. The next day, Allen High School pulled its student body into the auditorium.

Moving forward, there would be a new tip line students could call to anonymously report threats of suspicious activity. Additionally, administrators announced the would begin enforcing the dress code more strictly. We weren’t allowed to wear all-black clothing anymore. T-shirts for artists such as Marilyn Manson were banned. Trench coats were out.

One brave student raised her hand. “If the Columbine shooters had been wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, would you be banning that?”

“If the shooters had been wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, this wouldn’t have happened,” the administrator replied. It was late April, 1999, and adults were terrified of teenagers, especially ones who wore black trench coats, listened to Slayer, or played the video game Doom.

“It was clear to me that a certain group of people were being targeted for what seemed to be no real reason,” Jennifer Boccia, another student, told The Outline. She kept quiet during the assembly, but privately planned a protest with 10 other students. In response to the Allen Independent School District’s (AISD) new and overbearing policies, Boccia and her fellow protesters would wear a plain black armband to school.

The anonymous tip lines were creating a problem. People were calling in false tips, saying that bombs would blow up various schools in the area.

Boccia picked the black armband for a reason. In the late ’60s, a student protesting the Vietnam War with a black armband fought her school district for her right to free expression. The case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the student’s favor. “The idea was to express sympathy for the victims of Columbine as well as to protest the response of the school to events,” Boccia told The Outline.

On Monday, April 26, the tip line went live. The next day, administrators found a homemade gun at school and called the police. On April 29, a student called the tip line with the first bomb threat: They claimed one of the school buses was set to explode. It wasn’t. Police discovered the person’s identity and, according to the Allen Police Department and district records, arrested them. AISD responded according to the district’s procedure for handling bomb threats at the time: evacuate the threatened school.

It was May, and already humid and hot in Texas. During the first evacuation, hundreds of kids stood in an empty field adjacent to the school, sweating in the sun and passing around cell phones so we could get in touch with our folks.

The day after the first bomb threat, Boccia wore her black armband. Predictably, the school overreacted. Administrators hauled her into the office, told her to remove the armband, and threatened her with suspension if she didn’t.

Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas.

Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas.

Boccia had printed out a copy of the 1969 Supreme Court ruling to show to school administrators. They ran it through the paper shredder and put Boccia in in-school suspension. (A few weeks later, Boccia told a reporter at the Dallas Morning News that administrators denied the whole ruling had been shredded — just Boccia’s abstract of the case — though the district never officially commented on the incident.) Boccia emailed the American Civil Liberties Union and began talking to the press.

While Boccia battled the district, the anonymous tip lines were creating a problem. People were calling in false tips, saying that bombs would blow up various schools in the area. “We had a policy in the district at the time that, if we had a bomb threat, we would evacuate the building, then search it properly,” Tim Carroll, AISD’s chief information officer, told The Outline. Carroll was there in 1999, doing the same job, communicating with the press on behalf of the district. “We were following procedure, but that procedure was causing chaotic things. It was safe, but chaotic.”

Over the next few weeks, there were more bomb threats, more hit lists, and more arrests. On May 11, after someone called in more bomb threats, the district evacuated an elementary school and cancelled class at a middle school. The next day, after another round of bomb threats, it evacuated the same elementary school and a different middle school. The high school was the closest, ostensibly safe place for the middle schoolers to go after the evacuation. As they arrived and got off their busses, the high school received a bomb threat. The district had to evacuate the high schoolers, along with the middle schoolers who’d just arrived.

Evacuating two schools in one day was the final straw for parents and students. Kids, myself included, began to stay home from school. Parents were calling the district demanding action, though opinions were torn on what that action would be.

At the time, retired teacher Kathryn Sawyer worked at one of the after-school programs at an elementary school. From her perspective, administrators were scared and didn’t know how to handle the students and their increasingly frustrated parents. “[The administration] was freaked out,” she said. “They were totally freaked out.”

“We were following procedure, but that procedure was causing chaotic things.”
Tim Carroll, AISD’s chief information officer

On May 14, after 11 bomb threats and eight evacuations, the district sent out a press release announcing the early end of the school year. No explosives were ever found.

The district partially reversed its decision a few days later. “We did not cancel school for the rest of the year,” Carroll told me. According to Carroll, AISD ran an abbreviated schedule in its final two weeks, with groups of students alternating days. He claims attendance and final exams were mandatory, like a regular school year.

I remember it differently. The day before the final bomb threat, I told my parents I wouldn’t be going back to school. I didn’t feel safe and wasn’t confident the district could handle things. Admittedly, I was also pretty sure I’d fail Spanish that year if had to take the final. Thankfully, I didn’t have to.

Kinzie Hall, a junior at the time, didn’t go back to school either. “We only went back if we wanted to take a final exam,” she said. “You could keep the grade you had at that point and it’s what would be recorded, but if you wanted to take an exam to try and raise your grade, you could go take it.” Sawyer, the former after-school teacher, said she agreed with Hall’s account. Many students just stayed home.

On May 21, administrators from the district met with Boccia. They offered her a deal: Apologize for protesting and talking to the media, and they’d remove the suspension from her permanent record. Boccia refused. “If we can not achieve satisfactory resolution of this situation, I have no other option but to go to the media again and pursue legal action,” Boccia wrote in a letter to the district, which was later reprinted in The Dallas Morning News. Later, in a letter to Boccia's lawyer, the school district's lawyer denied that the district had attempted to bargain with Boccia.

The ACLU sued AISD for violating Boccia’s first amendment rights. The district settled in federal court later that summer. It admitted to violating her First Amendment rights, removed the suspension from her record, and agreed Boccia wouldn’t have to serve more time in suspension the following school year.

Metal detectors at the entrance of Allen High School after Columbine.

Metal detectors at the entrance of Allen High School after Columbine.

As the drama played out in the courts, the city was finishing the construction of a massive new high school it called Allen High School. Allen was a fast-growing city with a student population that had swelled beyond the capacity of its existing campuses. In 1999, around 2,000 kids were enrolled at Allen High School alone.

The new school was surreal — an opulent stone behemoth with fortress-style security rising out of the suburban Texas prairie. Chick Fil A, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway were on offer in the cafeteria. (Since I graduated, it has added a four-star restaurant.) Large bronze eagles — the school’s mascot — flanked the main entrances, and a tiled eagle mosaic adorned the floor at two of the entrances. The halls were large, with plenty of room to accommodate frequent performances by the school’s roughly 800-member marching band, the largest in the world.

Over the summer, AISD had instituted a new clear or mesh backpack policy, installed metal detectors, brought in cops called school resource officers (SROs), and planned to randomly search kids in the hallways and classrooms. To get inside the building, I had to wait in line for upwards of an hour to walk through a metal detector and possibly get patted down or wanded. Once you were in, the doors locked.

“Seventeen-year-old me was just gobsmacked,” Hall told me. She remembers feeling especially creeped out by the metal detectors. “It [made] it a pain to get in everyday. It made us feel like we were criminals. I remember being insulted and thinking it was so inappropriate, such an overreaction.”

If you want to know what the whole thing looked like, there’s a clip of it in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine at the 41-minute mark. In the footage, kids filter through the metal detector. A bald man waves a wand over a kid’s back while a cop watches. “It still sucks being a teenager,” Moore says on voice-over. “After Columbine, it really sucked being a student in America.”

Once you were in, the doors locked.

“I’m the bald guy . . . in that video,” Carroll told me, adding that parents and outside observers were divided over the district’s response. “You had two different camps of people,” he said. “One was, ‘The school district’s overreacting’. . . and the other group [was] saying, ‘I don’t care what you do as long as my kid’s safe.’”

Sawyer, the former after-school teacher, tells me that during the summer before the new campus opened, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms came and gave a demonstration to the teachers who’d be working there (Sawyer had transferred to the high-school for a full-time position). The training taught them how to recognize a bomb and a weapon and how to work the metal detectors. For teachers, working the checkpoints was required, but they weren’t immune to its scrutiny. “They searched our purses too,” she said.

According to Sawyer, it was just security theater. “Nothing worked,” she said “I had one kid — he brought in a knife that he’d smuggled in his backpack. Just to show me how it easy it was,” she says. “I had some idiot show up with a live kitten in his pocket.”

At the time, I didn’t feel safe. I felt hassled. I already didn’t like school, and adding metal detectors, cameras, cops, mesh bags, and random searches made me hate it.

In the years after Columbine, enhanced security and zero-tolerance policies became the norm across the country. A Congressional Research Service study estimated that in 1997, there were 13,000 cops in schools nationwide; by 2003, there were nearly 7,000 more. Many schools tried out metal detectors, began locking doors during school hours, and installed cameras. Some began doing active shooter drills.

Heather Schwartz, an education and policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, co-authored a study that looked to find out if technology such as metal detectors and cameras made schools safer. There wasn’t much proof that they did. “There’s not a lot of evidence about the effectiveness of pretty much any type of school safety technology,” she said. “Technology alone isn’t going to make schools safe — it’s a lot about school climate and culture.”

Metal detectors, she said, have the worst reputation. “Eighty percent of the people we asked believed that metal detectors and x-ray machines increased negative attitudes towards schools. Their concern was that it made schools feel like fortresses.”

A 2009 meta-study of metal detector use in schools conducted by the American Social Health Association yielded mixed results. The researchers looked at 128 different studies exploring the relationship between the devices and student safety, real and perceived. “There is insufficient data in the literature to determine whether the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students, and some research suggests that the presence of metal detectors may detrimentally impact student perceptions of safety,” the researchers concluded.

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed plan involves the state spending $500 million on safety in Florida’s public schools. Of that, $450 would go towards putting a police officer in every public school in the state, at a rate of one officer for every 1,000 kids. Similarly, Congress’ STOP act would resurrect an old Justice Department program and provide it with $25 million a year to help public schools pay for metal detectors and other technology. It also sets aside $50 million a year to fund training programs for teachers and SROs.

In 2013, the Congressional Research Service looked into SROs and found that most of the research “draws conflicting conclusions about whether SRO programs are effective at reducing school violence.” Additionally, the CRS report stated, “The body of research on the effectiveness of SROs does not address whether their presence in schools has deterred mass shootings.”

Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas, 2015.

Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas, 2015.

When it comes to arming teachers, there’s little research that says such a strategy would reduce violence. Hundreds of schools — mostly in rural America — already arm teachers, but no one has ever studied its effectiveness. There’s also no good research that says that approach will harm students, but there is evidence to suggest that, generally speaking, guns don’t make people any safer — a recent Harvard study found that countries and states with more guns and where guns are easier to purchase tend to have more gun deaths.

Of course, there’s another way that American would be able to reduce or eliminate mass shootings: make it harder for people to buy guns. But many politicians and voters disagree. When ABC News pressed Texas Lt. Governor Patrick on gun control after of the Sante Fe shooting, he said there was already enough regulation in place and doubled down on arming teachers. “Here’s the reality: [Guns] are a part of who we are as a nation,” Patrick said. He invoked the Second Amendment and said teachers were part of the well-run milia. “It’s guns that also stop crimes.”

The danger of these security measures to students is heightened in schools in communities that suffer from high rates of incarceration.

The danger of these security measures to students is heightened in schools in communities that suffer from high rates of incarceration, especially neighborhoods with a high proportion of people of color. In New York City, around 100,000 public school students move through metal detectors and x-ray machines to get to class. Airport-style security is a fact of everyday life. “There are a lot of things that are done in the name of student safety that don’t view the students as the people who need to be protected, but view the students as the people somebody else needs to be protected from,” Jill Bloomberg, a principal of Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn, told ProPublica in 2016.

Making a school feel like a jail isn’t conducive to learning. According to Congress’ 2013 report on SROs, more cops in schools “might result in more children being involved in the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses, and this, in turn, can result in other negative consequences, such as higher rates of suspension or a greater likelihood of dropping-out of school.”

Amanda Klonsky — an education researcher and doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — said that treating students as criminals has far worse consequences for students in low-income communities than it does for ones in affluent suburbs. “We can’t afford to introduce that kind of danger into the lives of our students by arresting them for disciplinary infractions, where they might — if they were white and middle class — be sent home for the afternoon or have their parents called in for a conference,” Klonsky says. “When you’ve got a police station in your school, the chances of getting arrested instead of disciplined in some of other less harmful way increases.”

As Florida and the rest of the country rushes to put more cops in the classroom, Chicago — a community that’s been grappling with the problem of security-heavy schools for decades — is looking to try something different. Illinois state legislators have introduced a bill that would create a grant program to help public schools hire mental health service professionals.

“The best way to make school safe is to have strong communities where educators and students have strong relationships that enable us to know each other, so that we can know what's going on in the lives of our students,” Klonsky said.

A 2013 report from the American Psychological Associated noted that more robust mental health services could help identify violent impulses early, and stop shootings before a potential assailant even considers taking action.

But the soft science of mental health doesn’t always lend itself to headlines, and some people don’t see conversations and compassion as the same thing as taking action. When a teenager enters a school with a rifle and kills, it’s easier for politicians and school administrators to opt for the most hardcore — and most visible — solutions.

“In a Bruce Willis movie, it’s never psychological counseling for troubled children that helps. Ever,” Security researcher Bruce Schneier told me.

Photo of the 2002 graduating class at Allen High School.

Photo of the 2002 graduating class at Allen High School.

Almost two decades later, the bomb threats and and metal detectors at Allen High School feel like a dream. The only evidence of the school district’s experiment in heightened security are the memories of my fellow students and educators and a few articles scattered online or in print archives. Fortunately for students in Allen, and unlike in other schools across the country, that experiment was short lived: by the end of the school year, AISD decided the cost of the metal detectors outweighed their benefit and stopped using them, in addition to loosening security.

After graduating in 2000, Hall, the former student, returned to AHS a year later, to see a former teacher. The day of her visit just happened to be September 11th, 2001, and she was shocked at how easy it was to enter — especially after one of the biggest terrorist attacks on American soil. “I just walked in the door; they weren’t on lockdown,” she said. “I found her down at the end of a hall and it was not a big deal.”

Some of the security measures remain. “We still have SROs, we still have ID badges, we still have good security measures in place, but technology changes,” Carroll says. “We do not have metal detectors in the hallways anymore. We don’t have the clear backpacks. Some of it, we rolled back.”

Adults panic and institute policies that kids have to live with. Those of us who went to Allen High School in 1999 know security theater doesn’t work. We don’t remember safety. We remember fear, foolishness, and the start of a fever that still grips the entire country. It’s a fever that motivates politicians to add more cops, install more metal detectors, and arm teachers — with the result of making kids feel less safe, in the name of making them safer.

Matthew Gault is a contributing editor at Motherboard and the co-host of the War College podcast; you can follow him on Twitter here.

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