School Security Boosts Student Insecurity?

Show Me the Numbers: Why metal detectors in black schools can do more harm than good.

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Metal detectors at a high school in Gary, Ind. (Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Gov. Mitt Romney, in response to a woman who asked about limiting the availability of assault weapons during the second 2012 presidential debate, said this: "We need moms and dads helping raise kids … gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone ... "  

In a rare moment of agreement, President Obama responded, "We agree on the importance of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they're less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts."

It was curious how a question about limiting assault weapons inspired moral invectives on single-parent households. In the 1980s violent crime among black youth and the number of black youth living in single-parent households both sharply increased, leaving reasonable suspicions that young African Americans were reacting to a more fragile family structure with violence. However, the relationship between the two ceased to exist in the late 1990s, as violent crime among black youth plummeted, while the percentage of black children living in single-parent households continued to rise. Today, the rate of violence among black youth is less than it was before 1980, when more than half of black children were being raised in two-parent households. The percentage of black children being raised in single-parent households is at a historic high (see Figure).

The myth that black youth violence is rising in tandem with black single-parent households has deeper implications than the semantics of a presidential debate. From the late 1980s to present, strategies to keep schools safe are typically based on this assumption that black youth violence is precipitously escalating. For this entry of Show Me the Numbers, we separate the myths from the realities of school violence among black youth, and offer strategies to defeat school violence without defeating ourselves.

Law and Disorder in Schools for Black Children 

 Last month's Show Me the Numbers article noted that police made 2,546 school-based arrests (75 percent black) between September 2011 and February 2012 in Chicago. More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Meridian, Miss., over civil violations of black schoolchildren. In Meridian, schoolchildren are handcuffed, arrested and detained for days for "minor school rule infractions" (pdf) without due process. Meridian was one of many districts that the DOJ cited for creating a "school-to-prison" pipeline for black students.

 Nationwide, predominately black, inner-city schools place a higher premium on security than suburban and rural schools. In 2009, I was on a panel with Ron Huberman, who was at the time the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. He spoke candidly about differences in the way that predominantly white and predominantly black schools deal with fighting. He said at predominantly white schools, a fight typically results in both students being separated and isolated with an adult, ultimately resulting in a formal mediation process. Contrarily, fighting at predominantly black schools often results in both students being arrested by school police officers. It is worth noting that Huberman is a former police officer.

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As I point out in my second Breaking Barriers report (pdf), nationwide, 26 percent of black students report passing through metal detectors when entering school compared with 5.4 percent of white students. At the same time, black students are significantly more likely to feel unsafe at their school, and less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers. Many black students are stuck in educational systems that operate more like correctional facilities and less like institutions of learning. The idea that black kids need to get a "boot in the butt" before receiving a book in the hand is responsible for many gross injustices committed against black students in their quest for a quality education.

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