Washington University Study Examines Role of Tighter School Security on Academic Performance

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    The St. Louis school shooting in October 2022 gripped the city and the nation. The terrifying moments of a gunman in school have been felt in other communities over the years leading to heightened security measures. The hardening of schools in the U.S. is a subject of intense study at Washington University in St. Louis before the St. Louis school shooting.

    “There’s something going on here in high surveillance schools where students aren’t able to meet their full potential,” said Jason Jabbari, Research Assistant Professor at the Brown School at Washington University and Associate Director of Community Partnerships at Washington University’s Social Policy Institute.

    Jabbari is co-author of a study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in September 2022. It’s about the ramped-up school security measures in response to school shootings and how that relates to academic performance and student outcomes.

    “After Columbine, we had what we call a hardening of schools. And so, we had a number of schools that had new measures – security cameras, metal detectors, drug searches, drug sniffing dogs,” said Jabbari. “And I think part of the impetus for this was really thinking about, were these effective measures in terms of academics?”

    Jabbari said there is little evidence that shows more extreme measures of school security reduce violence. On the other hand, study results show a reduction in school achievement in the high security schools.

    “We compare schools that are on the high-end of surveillance, the top third, the most surveilled schools compared to the bottom third of school surveillance,” he said.

    The study suggests that increased surveillance is having a detrimental impact on academic performance.

    “We’re not seeing the impact that if we have high surveillance, we’re going to have higher achievement. It’s the opposite,” said Jabbari.

    According to the study, schools that have heightened security have lower scores in math and a 20% reduction in the number of students attending college after graduation.

    “Our next study hopefully will involve some qualitative interviews to really see what’s going on there. But we know that these types of environments are antithetical to STEM achievement and performance.”

    And when schools are hardened, Jabbari said there is a 40% increase in suspensions. About one-half of the students with multiple suspensions had contact with the justice system as a teenager or adult, including prison time.

    “For individuals who are pushed out or dropout of high school, they are much more likely to end up in a prison. Higher surveilled schools tend to, I think, quite reasonably detect more instances perhaps of misbehavior. And so, I think that the motto is if you build it, you’re going to use it,” he said.  “Schools adding these measures – now they have it, and they end up using it.”

    Jabbari pointed out that most high surveillance schools are inner city schools with more black students.

     “We know that low income, in our study, black students were four times more likely to attend a high surveillance school. “

    The study suggests the high level of security is causing more problems for black students, increasing racial inequities in education. While enforcing higher levels of security may seem like the answer, Jabari hopes policymakers will consider the study and consider school shootings are rare. Jabbari offers suggestions for what he believes are better ways to end violence in schools, including supporting students’ mental health and feelings of belonging to schools.

    “How do we create environments where students’ whole selves are able to be recognized or social emotional needs can be met for students in high violence neighborhoods? How do we make sure that they’re able to effectively deal with that trauma in schools? And so, really thinking about schools as places where they can support students with their needs and their social and emotional needs as well.”

    “There’s also restorative justice,” Jabbari added. “The idea of restorative justice is that when we do have some infractions, or we do have folks who have kind of broken some of the social and school norms. How can we reintegrate them in a way that’s not punitive but restorative?”