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After Newtown: panicked safety measures turning schools into prisons

Following Newtown, most of the media coverage is focused on the debate over gun control. We are waiting to hear the proposals that emerge from the commission headed by Vice President Joe Biden, which is due to be announced this week. But whether or not Washington decides to pass new laws, important changes are happening already in American society in response to the mass shootings - and getting far less attention. In particular, we're witnessing school administrators rushing to adopt new fear-infused safety measures, which will have real effects on school-children, parents and communities.

ABC News recently reported on schools  in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The Middleton School District has introduced a range of extraordinary security measures:

  • New barriers in the parking lot so that cars cannot get near to any doors
  • People seeking to enter the school must press a camera-equipped doorbell, and no one can enter the school until an employee has viewed the person at the door, and agree they do not look suspicious
  • All entering must show photo ID, and then the ID is scanned and the school runs a criminal background check
  • Everyone is given a bright orange ID to wear, and then their every move is watched, as every area of the school is observable by a security camera
  • Administrators are now considering introducing bullet-resistant glass

It is also worth noting that all of the camera-doorbelling and background-checking occurs every time, for every person. So, even if you are a well-known parent, you need to endure this ritual every day.

Middleton may be extreme - or it may just be the wave of the future. It seems that every school, from Alaska to Florida, has announced in the past few weeks that it is either beefing up its school security program, or considering doing so. Other measures that have become almost routine now include:

  • Allowing entrance via only one main door, and requiring visitors to be buzzed in
  • Requiring parents to call in advance before arriving at the school, say to picking up their child for a doctor's appointment or to drop off a lunch they forgot
  • Mandatory sign-ins
  • Requiring photos taken of adults
  • Locking all doors except the front door
  • Locking classroom doors all day
  • Introducing a uniform policy, to distinguish students from non-students
  • Direct video feeds to the police
  • Police walk-throughs, or on-site officers (referred to as School Resource Officers)
  • And armed guards in some cases

The policy that bothers me the most is the "lockdown". When I was a kid, the term was unheard of in a school context; now, and before Newtown, it is mentioned all the time at my kids' schools - and it seems to be a regular occurrence. In case you're wondering what a lockdown is, here's a description:

A school lock down is a procedure which is initiated when school officials believe that there is a credible threat to student and staff safety. Lock downs are classically used to protect students from school shooters, bomb threats, and other forms of violence, but they can also be used when police are engaged in an operation nearby, or when a national disaster has been declared. The goal of a school lock down is to keep students and staff safe, and while it may be frightening or disruptive, it is important to comply with the lock down for safety reasons.

When a lock down is ordered, people are told to stay inside their classrooms and lock the doors. This is designed to prevent entrance from hallways and corridors. Windows will also be shut, locked, and covered with blinds to obscure visibility, and people are often encouraged to stay away from doors and windows, sheltering in an area where they cannot be seen.

After Newtown, kids will have to undertake more lockdown drills. The exercises planned in the town of Martinez, in the Bay Area of California, are becoming the new norm:

In the next two weeks, district staff and police will conduct lockdown drills at every campus during which students will be expected to take cover under desks or huddle together in a corner away from windows, stay quiet, leave the doors closed and follow teachers' instructions. Posters outlining the procedures students and teachers should take in the event an armed intruder is on campus will be posted in every classroom.

When the Cold War was at its height, school-children were made to undergo "duck and cover" drills, in which they would cram under their desks to (supposedly) protect themselves from nuclear attack. They seem ridiculous now. But today the lockdown is our duck and cover... and unfortunately no one is laughing.

You would never know it from the discussion, but our schools are actually safe, with violent crime rare. Kids are probably safer at school than at homes, or in cars. But instead of recognizing these facts, we're over-reacting to events like Newtown. "Lockdown" used to be a term reserved for actions in prisons - and that, unfortunately, is what our schools are on the way to becoming.

In the ABC report, the superintendent of the Skokie school district, Kate Dongan, said, "I don't know if there's too big a price tag to put on keeping your kids as safe as they can be." But according to Dongan's logic, why don't schools make everyone go through the body scanners you have at airports? Why not strip-search parents at the school doors? I mean, after all, kids' safety is at risk and you can't afford not to do it! I don't mean to pick on Dongan alone; it seems that nearly everyone, post-Newton, believes that safety is the be-all and end-all.

But I don't believe that safety is the only value, or even the most important value, that schools should be mindful of. One of the most important values that schools need to be protective of is trust. I know trust can seem a nebulous, abstract concept - especially up against nightmare vision of a gun-toting attacker, which seems more real after Newtown. But just wait until you lose trust; then you'll know how much our society relies on it, and it will be awfully hard to rebuild.

Schools in the US are not soulless institutions. They are important centers of the community, places where people of different ages come together, learn together and play together. They can be tremendous builders of community trust. But if the kinds of policies that are being introduced become more widespread, they will be conveyors of the opposite - mistrust.  Suspicion of one another will become the order of the day, and schools will be the mechanisms that institutionalize that suspicion.

Kids look to adults. With lockdowns and other security measures so prominent in our schools, we're sending them a message - and it's a terribly negative one.

Let's not allow kids to believe that their adults are afraid of their own shadows. Let's show them that we are not the types to let a rare act of violence change our way of life, and our belief in people.

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