Heightened Security and Safety Measures in Public Schools2013-08-28T17:10:38-04:00

Anne Cline
York College of Pennsylvania
June 2004

At a public high school in a suburban town, the bell rings and students file into the hallways. Teachers stand guard in front of classroom doors, watching for misconduct. During lunch, teachers monitor the cafeteria. The one security officer for a student population of 2,000 makes his or her way through campus, on the lookout for anything suspicious. The school's main entrances remain unguarded as parents, teachers, and students come and go throughout the day.

A couple of years ago, scenes like these were common in public schools around the country. Today they are almost nonexistent. Public schools used to have minimum security in which teachers, administrators, and a single security guard monitored student's behavior and school violence. Currently these types of security and safety measures are rarely implemented in public schools (Ellis, 2003). Growing public anxiety over acts of violence in public schools has prompted educators and lawmakers to drastically heighten security and safety measures in public schools in order to reduce and prevent violence and ensure safety in schools. Recent incidents that have caused public concern over school violence and increased security in schools are the Columbine shootings, the September 11th tragedy, an increase in terrorism, and the 47 school-associated violent deaths that occurred between July 1998 and June 1999 (Snell, Bailey, Carona, & Mebane, 2002). These incidents have also caused students to fear for their safety. In the year 2000, 1.1 million students reported avoiding areas in school out of fear for their safety. Students' feeling unsafe in their own schools is another reason why security and safety measures have recently been heightened in public schools (Ellis, 2003).

The measures that schools are taking to reduce school violence and increase students safety include adopting a zero tolerance policy, increasing physical security, increasing liaison with law enforcement and private security agencies, and offering students types of violence prevention programs. These heightened security and safety measures have both advantages and disadvantages towards the public school system (Bridges, 1999).

Increased Physical Security

Public schools have increased their physical security system in a variety of ways. Many schools have started to limit access to their property by locking all unmonitored entrances and requiring all visitors to check in at the main office. Visitors are also now issued distinct identification that they are required to wear while on campus (Begar, 2002). Schools have begun to assign specific individuals to monitor campus perimeters and hallways and provide two-way radios for staff members responsible for monitoring campus activities. School personnel have also begun conducting routine security inspections of the exterior and interior of the campus and reporting any suspicious activity to school officials or the police (Triplett, Trulson, & Snell, 2001). Walk-through metal detectors have been in use in many inner city schools over the past couple years, while hand-held detectors and random weapons screenings are more popular on smaller, rural campuses. Surveillance cameras are now popular in public schools. Thirty-two percent of public schools around the country use surveillance cameras. Medium size campuses now install at least twenty-five surveillance cameras in classrooms, hallways, gyms, cafeterias, parking lots, football fields, and on each school bus ("Security Toughens," 2001).

Many public schools have now started to enforce rules regarding student's attire. Some public schools are now requiring their students to wear uniforms just as students in private schools do. School uniforms help identify intruders more easily. Schools have started to require students to carry only see-through purses, backpacks, and bookbags. This allows school officials to detect weapons, illegal substances, and other items that lead to or promote school violence more easily (Ellis, 2003). Schools are also safeguarding their campuses by requiring that students wear visible student identification at all times. This will also help keep outsiders and troublemakers from sneaking onto campus (Bridges, 1999).

Zero Tolerance Policies

Since the mid-1990s a growing number of schools have adopted zero tolerance policies under which students receive predetermined penalties for any offense, no matter how minor. Public schools have zero tolerance policies for firearms and other weapons, alcohol, illegal or legal drugs, tobacco, and violence. Over 80% of the nation's schools have some form of zero-tolerance policy in place ("Security Toughens," 2001). In Mississippi, the penalty for having a gun on school property is a fine of $5,000 and up to three years in prison. Louisiana law states that any student carrying a firearm on school grounds shall be imprisoned at hard labor for no more than five years. In Ohio students have been expelled or suspended from school for sharing aspirin, Midol, and Certs tablets, and for bringing nail clippers and scissors to class (Snell et al., 2002).

Liaison with Law Enforcement and Private Security Agencies

The presence of law enforcement officials and private security personnel is rapidly increasing in public schools. Twenty-three percent of schools reported having police or security personnel stationed 30 hours or more at the school in a typical week. These officials perform multiple tasks such as patrolling school grounds, assisting with investigations of students who break school rules, conducting searches, and arresting students who commit crimes (Begar, 2002).

Security guards and police officers have the responsibility of identifying places in public schools that must be monitored for situations where property damage, crimes, or physical violence may occur. These places are usually the halls, restrooms, the cafeteria, and the parking lot (Ellis, 2003). Danger can be avoided or at least minimized by making rounds in these particular places. By being at the right place at the right time, security guards or police officers can do their jobs effectively (Begar, 2002). When confronted by fights or other instances of physical violence, guards need to respond in a way that is proportionate to the level of violence and to the students' reactions to their orders (Ellis, 2003).

A major task of police officials stationed in public schools is conducting searches on students. Police officers are given the authority to conduct random preemptive searches of students' lockers and personal property. They may even use specially trained sniff dogs while searching students. When conducting searches, police officers are looking for weapons, drugs, alcohol, and items that were reporting missing by school officials. Police officers are also allowed to search student's vehicles with or without cause ("Security Toughens," 2001).

Violence Prevention Programs

Public anxiety over recent school violence has led public schools to provide violence prevention programs. These programs try to prevent violence before it begins. Fifty-nine percent of public schools reported having a school violence prevention program in 1999-2000. These programs take students who have been punished for violating school rules and try to prevent these students from committing future acts of violence by showing them their actions are unacceptable (Triplett et al., 2001). At the same time, these programs seek to avoid criminalizing offending students. Violence prevention programs keep offenders in the classroom, which avoids disrupting their education and also helps the school not lose attendance funding due to suspended or expelled students. Examples of these programs are Operation CleanSWEEP and "Students Against Violence Everywhere" or S.A.V.E (Begar, 2002).


There are some advantages of heightened security in public schools. National fear of crime levels is much lower and has been declining since security in public schools has increased. The percentage of students ages twelve through eighteen who reported avoiding one or more places at school for their own safety decreased from nine percent in 1995 to five percent in 1999 and 2001 (Snell et al., 2002). In 2001 there was a six percent decrease in students being absent from school due to fear of violence. There has also been a decrease in school crime due to increased security (Bridges, 1999). Possession of controlled substances was down four percent in 2001 and assaults on school employees were down sixteen percent in 2001. Between 1995 and 2001, the prevalence of reported victimization dropped from 10 percent to 6 percent for 6th graders and from 6 percent to 3 percent for 12th graders (Snell et al., 2002).


Heightened school security measurers, including increased physical security, increased liaison with law enforcement and private security agencies, and adopted zero tolerance policies have many disadvantages and may not be that effective. Physical security methods, such as installing surveillance cameras and metal detectors, can be very expensive and ineffective. Nationally, public schools spend $795 million on security each year, which amounts to $19.28 per person. Many people feel this money could be better spent on improving the quality of education ("Security Toughens," 2001). The increase of police officers and security guards in public schools has shifted the responsibility for maintaining order and discipline in the classroom away from teachers and into the hands of law enforcement officials. The presence of police officers and security guards also acts as a daily reminder of school crime and may unintentionally increase fear of crime among faculty and students (Begar, 2002). Finally, there is no credible evidence that zero tolerance policies improve behavior in students. School administrators have claimed that parents are unhappy with the severity of school disciplinary policies and feel they have gone too far (Triplett et al., 2001).

Many students have complained that searches conducted at school by police officers are diminishing the rights of students. Students are being subjected to unannounced locker searches and searches without probable cause. Therefore they feel that their privacy is being invaded and that their constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment have been lost (Triplett et al., 2001).

As a result of the increased security measures in public schools, students may feel that an overly controlled environment has taken their creativity, individualism, and intellectual development away. Tighter security brings about less emphasis on individualism and education. Students in public schools are being forced to conform to many new rules and regulations, which diminishes students' academic performance (Ellis, 2003). Increased security also sends a message of mistrust. It in no way promotes open communication between the school administration and student body (Snell et al., 2002).


As public school systems continue to fear crime and violence, increased security is unavoidable. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of increased school security in order to please all those affected by the public school system. This balance can be obtained through having school officials consider violence prevention measurers that are factually need-based. School officials should identify the specific problems that are currently taking place at their school and determine how to rationally address them before they implement security measures. This way they will avoid employing unnecessary security measures that take away students' freedom and that are costly (Ellis, 2003). Prevention measures, outside of security devices, should also be considered and could include peer mediation, parental involvement, and more access to counselors (Bridges, 1999).


Begar, R. R. (2002). Expansion of police power in public schools and the vanishing rights of students. Social Justice, 29(1/2), 119-130.

Bridges, D. (1999). Safeguarding our schools. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 68(9), 22-25.

Ellis, F. E. (2003). Essential strategies for school security: A practical guide for teachers and school. Security Management, 47(1), 107.

Security toughens as school kids return this year (2001). Corporate Security, 27(15), 1-7.

Snell, C., Bailey, C., Carona, A., & Mebane, D. (2002). School crime policy changes: The impact of recent highly-publicized school crimes. American
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Triplett, R., Trulson, C., & Snell, C. (2001). Social control in a school setting: Evaluating a school-based boot camp. Crime and Delinquency, 47(4), 573-609.


Email: acline@ycp.edu

My name is Anne Elizabeth Cline. I am currently a sophomore at York College of Pennsylvania. I play division three field hockey at York College and am majoring in criminal justice and minoring in psychology. I enjoy studying behavioral sciences and often write essays that deal with subjects relating to behavioral sciences such as psychology, sociology, and criminal justice.