More guns in schools? An ethnographer’s perspective.

Author Kathleen Nolan has studied what really happens when police patrol school hallways. Images from Creative Commons.

Princeton University lecturer

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Since National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre made a wildly irresponsible statement in favor of placing police or armed guards in all schools last month, several politicians have put forth their own proposals to “beef up” school security and even give teachers and principals handguns and target practice for protection.

Subsequently, gun-control experts have provided many cogent rebuttals, but there has been very little public discussion about the realities of daily life in schools with armed police officers and guards.

As our nation chooses which policy direction to take, it is crucial to consider existing research that illuminates some of the consequences of security programs that rely on guns in schools.

My own ethnographic research in a highly policed school in New York City shows that when law enforcement patrol school hallways, students are regularly confronted by the police and often end up getting arrested for incidents that begin with school infractions, rather than violations of the law. The school takes on prison-like characteristics, and a culture of control overshadows the educational mission of the institution.

Other research is consistent with my own findings. A 2009 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, for example, shows that policing in NYC schools has led to gross violations of students’ civil rights, and several reports published by the Advancement Project have demonstrated how “beefed up school discipline” can create a “school-prison track”—especially for Black and Latino/a students and students with special needs.

My findings, of course, describe an extreme set of outcomes that would likely remain limited to racially segregated schools in low-income communities.

Nevertheless, in any school with armed guards and police, there are no clear boundaries between school discipline and security. It would be naïve to believe that students would only be protected and never targeted. Indeed, some shooters in previous school gun massacres have been students, so students would be under the gaze of the guards. If your child is a person of color, he or she is already marked. In fact, an abundance of evidence demonstrates that Black and Latino/a students and other students of color are much more likely than their white counterparts to face the punitive consequences of police intervention—even for the same behaviors. Our children with special needs are also marked. Their easily misunderstood behaviors or compromised communication skills place them at risk. In fact, the number of children at risk of facing the barrel of a gun would be ever-growing. The unusually angry or sullen child, the quick-handed kid who reaches for his cell phone, the unrecognized, visiting father—they are all vulnerable.

Additionally, while many schools would be able to avoid the prison-like atmosphere I encountered at the racially segregated, urban school where I conducted my research, you could reasonably expect a cultural shift. In any school with a visible police presence or armed guards and metal detectors, the institutional language and daily rituals are influenced by the logic of the criminal justice system. Students become accustomed to walking through a metal detector. And this is not an event that goes unnoticed. In large schools with metal detectors, students often have to stand outside and wait in line—sometimes for an hour or more—to get into the building. As one teacher in my study shared, going through the metal detector each day sets a very negative psychology; it’s a hostile experience. Kids get used to the frequent pat-downs that occur when every little benign metal object sets off the detector, going on “lock-down,” and seeing peers get “picked up.” Children are also at risk of either developing animosities with police or living in fear that they are not safe without armed protection.

Placing armed guards in schools is also much less effective and more dangerous than some may realize. Some research suggests that school-based policing programs, also known as school resource officer (SRO) programs, have been successful at reducing disorder and certain forms violence in schools. But this is only the case when the role of police is clearly defined and carefully limited. It also appears to work best when police take on constructive roles such as mentoring students in gangs rather than patrol duties. Other research indicates that armed guards do not make schools safer. A study published in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations in 2011, for example, revealed that schools with armed security guards have higher rates of violence than schools without them.

In my own study, there were several auxiliary officers, thankfully unarmed, and I found that they often exacerbated incidents of violence rather than defused them. They knew very little about adolescent psychology and were unprepared to constructively address a range of student behaviors. Imagine if they were armed. Even well-trained police officers usually have little experience confronting crazed shooters.

Additionally, I found that virtually everyone with whom I spoke, including police officers, believed that despite security technology and heavy policing, guns could be slipped into the building, through windows, back doors, and even right past the metal detectors. After spending much time in the school, I too was convinced that it would not be difficult to get a gun into the school for any person intent on doing so. Indeed, a gun may not even need to be concealed. As a number of analysts have pointed out in recent weeks, it is more likely that the guard at the door would be shot and killed by an armed intruder before he or she knew what was happening. For similar reasons, we should not be swayed by proposals to arm one trained educator in the building. Chances are much higher that such a plan would go terribly wrong rather than actually stop a gunman who would likely take the armed educator by surprise or enter on the opposite side of the building from the armed educator’s location.

Turning so much of our attention toward “beefing up” security by introducing more guns in schools is particularly dangerous because such plans divert our attention away from the kinds of solutions that will actually help to create safer schools and a safer society. Some SRO programs may be successful in curtailing certain forms of violence, but at a potentially great cost. Ronnie Casella’s research on this topic demonstrates that when we rely on police strategies for matters of school safety, “hidden” forms of violence, such as bullying and self-mutilation associated with mental illness, get overlooked. And this hidden violence, not adequately addressed, has contributed greatly to rampages.

We do not need cadres of armed guards or gun-toting principals in schools. We need instead amply staffed teams of social workers and counselors in schools—professionals who work from an educational, child-development, or mental health perspective, rather than a criminal justice paradigm. We need to invest much more in providing schools with these supports as part of reasonable and well researched, rather than reactionary and dangerous, school security plans. We also need better and more accessible mental health services in and out of schools, and we need to target gun violence at its source through strict gun control. Don’t let the reactionary, uninformed rhetoric of puffed-up politicians sway you.


Kathleen Nolan is author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School. She works in the Teacher Preparation Program and is a lecturer at Princeton University. She teaches seminars related to urban education.

“A damning portrait . . . by exhaustively profiling an unnamed Bronx high school — shadowing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators, security guards, and police officers over the course of an academic year — Nolan reveals the worrying ways educative aims have been eroded by a culture of control, the ways learning is superseded by law enforcement.”
—The New Inquiry 

“Anyone interested in education in America should definitely take this sobering journey into life in an urban high school.”
—Library Journal

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