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Heightened school security linked to lower test scores, college attendance



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Story at a glance

  • School shootings are common in the United States, and some officials have tried to improve student safety through increased surveillance.

  • But these measures, like random metal detector searchers or clear book bag requirements, have negative effects on students’ education outcomes, according to new research.

  • Black students in particular are disproportionately affected.

Amid calls to boost school security in response to recent shootings, new data is shedding light on how increased surveillance may already be hurting students’ academic performance. 

Heightened security measures are linked to lower math test scores, fewer students attending college and more suspensions, according to research published Tuesday in the Journal of Criminal Justice. 

Researchers dubbed their findings the “safety tax” — the academic price students pay for the increased security and surveillance at their schools. Black students in particular are four times more likely than other students to be enrolled in schools with high levels of surveillance and are also more likely to be suspended.

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The implications of increased school security go beyond classroom walls, researchers explain, as students’ experience in school can underlie their wellbeing in the future.

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“Educational outcomes are powerful social determinants of incarceration risk, high-risk health behaviors, and life-course health outcomes,” wrote authors Odis Johnson Jr., of John Hopkins University, and Jason Jabbari, of Washington University in St. Louis. 

Those who are regularly punished pay double the tax, Johnson said.

“When schools feel like prisons, the impact isn’t localized to the students perceived as problematic — it has collateral consequences for kids irrespective of their behavior,” Johnson said in a press release. 

Johnson acknowledged surveillance is intended to better protect students and ensure safe learning environments, but noted the primary mission of schools is to educate.

When surveillance was excluded in the model, young Black women were more likely to attend college than other young women, and lower math and testing scores among Black males were no longer apparent. 

Researchers hope to study the causes of lower test scores and college attendee rates among those who are not targeted with suspension in high-surveillance schools, while they hypothesize the message sent to students by the measures — that kids are not safe — could play a role.

“These are ways that students feel less like students and more like suspects,” Johnson said. 

Researchers analyzed national survey data to compare schools with and without high levels of security and adjusted their findings for factors like social and economic backgrounds. 

The study assessed metal detectors, random metal detector checks and dog sniffs, closing campuses for lunch, random contraband sweeps and drug testing. Researchers also included uniform requirements, strict dress codes, clear book bag requirements, student identification badge requirements, faculty identification badge requirements and security cameras.

Researchers found drops in test scores and low enrollment rates in high-surveillance schools among students who hadn’t been suspended, underscoring the negative effects of increased surveillance on all students, not just those who are perceived as troublesome.