A history of violence in schools, and remedies to stop it

By Kate Tuttle
August 14, 2010

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In April 1999, a pair of students at Columbine High School in Colorado killed a dozen fellow students and one teacher, as well as themselves. Parents, teachers, and politicians nationwide, understandably terrified in the wake of the massacre, began advocating ever-stricter school security policies to help prevent violent crime.

At least, that’s the story as commonly told. Yet one of the indelible images from Columbine shows armed guards, caught on school video cameras, searching for the shooters. As Aaron Kupchik points out, “both the security cameras and the armed guards were already there (and failed to prevent the massacre from happening).’’

In his compelling, important book about American schools and discipline, Kupchik, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, punctures the myth that tighter security measures stemmed from Columbine or any other school shooting. He traces the proliferation of police officers and surveillance cameras, as well as “zero tolerance’’ policies, not to any event, or even to increased crime or danger in the schools (in fact, crime in schools has been declining over the past 20 years, according to Kupchik), but to social and political trends that have their roots decades before Columbine.

Public education has always been a battleground on which opposing political visions have competed — Kupchik deftly sketches the history — and today’s public schools, in particular their discipline policies, provide “a stage for the airing of public anxieties and conflicts, including racial conflicts, fear of crime, and concern over growing needs of youth.’’

The analogies to our most recent foreign policy debates are obvious and telling. A powerless student body can grow into a body politic that passively, if grudgingly, accepts attacks on its civil rights by both school and criminal justice authorities. When a high school student is criminally prosecuted for merely planning to participate in a food fight (a true, ludicrous story Kupchik cites), it’s hard to see what’s being protected, other than the school’s authority to do whatever it likes.

So what should schools do differently? The author offers some prescriptions for discipline policies that set reasonable rules — with the cooperation of students themselves — and focus on solving problems, listening to students, and treating them equitably when rules are broken. He recommends abandoning videotaping and uniformed police officers on school grounds, except in cases of documented violent crime.

He argues passionately that zero tolerance policies not only don’t work, they “make schools less democratic, lead to unnecessary escalation of punishment in unwarranted circumstances, and exacerbate racial disparities in punishment.’’ One school that has rejected zero tolerance — and metal detectors — in favor of a more nuanced approach is in Colorado’s Columbine, where “despite the fears that must remain there, school officials chose to invest in student relations rather than surveillance,’’ , writes Kupchik.

“Homeroom Security’’ is an academic book with clunky transitions, charts, and appendices. Still, Kupchik’s detailed observations of four public high schools with vastly different student bodies paint a convincing picture of good intentions gone awry. In trying to keep kids safe, these schools — our schools — are rendering them even more vulnerable, not only to crime but to disillusionment, disenfranchisement, and ultimately to a passive acceptance of heavy-handed policing, limitations on free speech, ubiquitous video surveillance, and other intrusions on civil liberties.

This is a book that deserves a wider audience than it likely will get. As Kupchik points out, what our students learn about crime, punishment, justice, and liberty is crucial to the society we’ll all inhabit as today’s graduates leave school behind.

Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor who lives in Belmont. She can be reached at

HOMEROOM SECURITY: School Discipline in an Age of Fear

By Aaron Kupchik

New York University, 288 pp., $35)