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John Whitehead's Commentary

Do We Really Need Maximum Security Schools

John Whitehead
Students recently returned to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado to began a new school year in a building that resembled a correctional facility more than an institution for learning. They were not alone. This year, thousands of returning students will be welcomed back to school by the watchful eye of high-tech surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and other formidable security measures.

Despite recent high-profile school shootings, school-related crimes have actually decreased in the last five years. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education shows that the number of students expelled for bringing guns to school has dropped 31 percent. However, school districts are becoming increasingly aggressive in their high-priced, high-tech quest for the "safest" school. As a result, the same security measures used in prisons are now being used in our public schools, including metal detectors, identification badges, surveillance cameras, motion sensors, controlled access to buildings, and the presence of armed guards.

In Mercer County, Kentucky and also in Liberty, Missouri, security cameras will now monitor and track students not only in the school halls but also on the school buses. In Plano, Texas, returning students will be greeted by a beefed-up security staff, which includes a full-time police officer on each campus and a full-time police dog ready to sniff out drugs and bombs. In Osceola County, Florida, students will have to wear a ring called the iButton, which houses a tiny computer that allows the wearer access to school buildings and classrooms.

Money formerly allocated for schoolbooks and teachers' salaries is now being spent on security equipment and safety consultants. Liberty Public Schools applied for a $3.4 million federal grant to fund its new security system that will include additional metal detectors and surveillance equipment. Similarly, the Jefferson County School District, which includes Columbine High School, invested $1 million to revamp its security to include a new surveillance system, student I.D. badges, and an increased security staff.

As if the dogs, cameras, and cops were not enough to "protect" our students, some safety zealots claim school administrators should take further precautions. Executive Director of the National School Safety Center, Ronald D. Stephens, compiled a list of "40 Ways to Manage and Control Student Disruptions." Suggestions for school safety included mandatory dress codes, elimination of lockers, employment of probation officers, and mandatory crime reporting.

Some schools have followed Stephens' suggestions and implemented high-tech security devices in addition to restrictive zero tolerance policies or dress codes. Approximately nine out of 10 schools in the country have zero tolerance policies for firearms, and about 88 percent have zero tolerance policies for drugs and alcohol. But often, authorities abuse the zero tolerance policies, which mandate suspension for any student found with the prohibited weapon or substance.

For example, a Florida student was suspended for having nail clippers because, under the school's zero tolerance policy, the clippers constituted a weapon. Some schools' zero tolerance policies go as far as prohibiting certain types of behavior--such as intimidating or "hard" stares. Others suspend students not only for committing acts of violence, but also for merely spreading rumors of violence.

Again in the name of so-called safety, schools have imposed restrictive dress codes for students. A high school student in Mississippi was recently reprimanded for wearing his Star of David necklace because it could be considered a gang symbol in violation of the school's dress code. (Following much publicity, the school has recognized the student's First Amendment rights and has reversed its position.) Other schools prohibit students from wearing trench coats, black clothing, baggy jeans or "unnaturally dyed hair," while some schools require school uniforms, thus leading many to ask whether these restrictive dress codes are for the sake of safety or conformity. "Tell me how a pair of blue pants and a white shirt is going to protect my child," asks the general consul for the National School Boards Association, Julie Underwood.

Perhaps the worst violation of the students' rights, in the name of safety, can be seen in Plano, Texas, where the schools are promising cash to any student with information leading to an arrest of another student. Equally appalling is the use of undercover cops to infiltrate schools in Florida, thus turning the schoolyards into sting operations.

Unfortunately, as the security methods increase, the students' constitutional liberties decrease. Since the shootings at Columbine last spring, there have been hundreds of complaints from students and parents whose rights have been violated by these intrusive security devices or restrictive policies. To stop the rising number of constitutional casualties, the schools must realize that their duty to the students is to educate and protect, not to imprison them.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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