The Common Good
January-February 2000

School House Lock

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | January-February 2000

A school system cannot hope to solve school violence simply by increasing security.

As the media report each new act of violence in American schools, the only question journalists can ask is, Why? They are desperately looking for the causes of perversion in today’s youth. In truth, there will never be any reason—whether it is television, video games, bad parenting, a secular society, or the press itself—that fully explains how an adolescent, even as young as 9 years old, can murder his or her classmates and teachers and feel a surge of power at watching them die.

Both students and parents are concerned with safety in schools. The solution presented by the Washington, D.C. school district has been to cut the positions that naturally provide security in schools—such as janitors and school guards—and subcontract that work to outside companies that primarily sell security hardware. The result is that to enter school, high school students are forced to pass through scanners and video cameras.

I must now wear to school an ID badge with a barcode. I feel as though I am a criminal constantly under suspicion.

The only way to ensure safety in schools is to make students feel acknowledged and secure. Students often do not feel safe in their schools because of the lack of trust that exists between students, teachers, and administration. It seems the only purpose ID badges serve is to reinforce the maxim that students (like any teen-agers) are "guilty until proven innocent" by an adult.

Young people cannot survive in an environment where they are constantly suspected of misconduct without beginning to live up to those negative expectations. Teen-agers are extremely in tune with how other people perceive them. If they feel that others judge them as inferior, they begin to act desperately. They mutilate or starve themselves, lose interest in learning, or commit acts of violence.

OUR NATIONAL and local governments often forget that most problems are connected. A doctor cannot treat only a patient’s nausea when it is caused by cancer. In the same way, the D.C. public school system cannot hope to solve school violence simply by increasing security, when—in nearly all instances—the violence is rooted in poverty.

Many students come from neighborhoods that the police have abandoned. They endure abuse at home that comes in part from the pressures of poverty, such as not having health care and an erratic income. Many of these same students attend schools that are devoid of programs aimed at enriching their lives.

I have visited the Oak Hill Youth Center where minors in Washington, D.C., are sent after committing a crime. During one visit, I realized that one of the girls incarcerated there had gone to junior high with me. Couldn’t someone have helped her before she pointed a gun at someone, shrieking that she needed his or her wallet?

If the problem of violence is often rooted in poverty, then solutions must be focused on eliminating poverty. Instead of spending a ridiculous amount of money on video cameras and ID scanners, spend it on cameras for photography classes and scanners for school newspapers. Fund school plays, volleyball teams, pottery classes, language and math clubs, science laboratories, and soccer coaches. Show students that their schools are improving, however gradually. Remove the desperation from their lives and teach them to build programs that will benefit future classes. If you really want to do something about violence in our schools, prove to students that they matter, and that they have reason to believe in themselves and their futures.

CELESTE KENNEL-SHANK is a junior at the School Without Walls public high school in Washington, D.C. She is active in youth empowerment work. For more information on school safety, see the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Web site at www.cjcj.org.

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