Salon.com sat down with Aaron Kupchik, the author of Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear. The author was also featured on WAMC’s The Roundtable – download the podcast here.
You spent a lot of time in each of the four schools. What are the police officers like who patrol these schools?
They were great. I really enjoyed the time that I spent with them. These are people who care about kids and who work hard for little money to do the right thing. I might disagree with what they do and how they do it, but not with their motives. But their role is an odd one for schools. They don’t have a counseling background, and they are just not able to deal with kids’ problems the way that some of these problems need. Their day-to-day experience trains them and socializes them to deal with kids in not the most productive manner. And their presence in schools creates a law-and-order mindset to govern schools rather than the type of counseling and democratic mindset that we know prevents crime.
There’s still very much a public perception that crime, violence and drugs are on the rise in schools. Has the addition of school resource officers been effective at all?
The jury’s still out on whether they’ve led to a decrease in crime. There have been big decreases in crime, but it’s unlikely that the SROs have had an effect on that. There have been only a few studies that have tried to look at effectiveness, and they’ve been totally mixed. What we do know about preventing crime in schools is that when you have a more democratic and inclusive school, you tend to have less crime. A democratic and inclusive school is one where students feel respected, they feel like they’re a part of a school, and where a school deals with students’ problems rather than just dismissing them. It’s one where the students feel empowered. SROs and zero-tolerance policies do the opposite of this; they erode what we know works.
The Columbine shooting is often invoked as a justification for zero-tolerance policies. But what kinds of changes did Columbine High adopt in the wake of the shootings?
Columbine is central to the way we think about school security. It redefined the tragedy of school crime in a very dramatic way. In the wake of it, what Columbine High did was quite sensible. They invested in counselors. They recognized that kids who do bad things in school are usually kids who have very serious troubles, and so rather than simply kicking them out of school for a week, they tried to reach out to kids who are dealing with difficult issues — to solve problems rather than just delaying them for a week while the kid’s out of school. They turned away from the more zero-tolerance type of policies and toward what I think is a much more effective way of trying to deal with things.