How much is school like a prison?


By Reginald Barbour

There was another school shooting this morning. This one was closer to home at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Great Mills is a traditional public school. A security expert spoke to a local news station about the shooting when he made a great point, which prompted this blog post. He said these shootings are happening in suburban schools where security is more relaxed than in urban schools. If you ride by any urban high school, you will see at least one police car in the parking lot. The mere presence of law enforcement at these schools, provides a sense that punishment is immediate if you decide to commit a violent act on these school grounds. “They don’t have that in suburban schools,” he said.

I agree with him. I do see law enforcement vehicles outside of high schools in the city where I live and in the neighboring urban counties. However, let’s take into account the experience you have when you walk into one of these highly-secured schools. Anyone coming into the school must walk through a metal detector including students, staff, parents, visitors, etc. Bags are examined in an x-ray machine. Students are expected to have clear backpacks so the contents are visible. There are police officers with guns and handcuffs visibly present to send the message of “follow the rules and nobody gets hurt.”

Students are shepherded to their first class by the use of a bell. In some schools, there is tape on the floor that creates a straight line students must walk inside of or face punishment for disobeying that rule. Teachers stand outside of their classrooms as hall monitors to ensure students aren’t loitering and are getting where they need to be on time and in an orderly fashion. Once inside the classroom, desks are lined up neatly facing the teacher. You are not to speak out of turn and must follow the rules.

This scenario reminds me so much of the prison scenes I’ve seen on television and movies. Everyone moves together, dresses alike, under the watchful eye of a prison guard who has a gun locked and loaded just in case someone gets out of line. The inmates move together from one activity to the next, in a straight line, without talking.

Geesh, this school to prison pipeline might be more real than we think.

Who created this reality? A better question is why do we allow our children to be a part of it by enrolling them in a school that’s set up to treat them like prisoners?

“What is happening in our schools?” people are asking. Some are blaming it on increasing mental health issues with students, but let’s be clear and remember how health services in school budgets across this country have been cut over the years. President Trump is continuing those cuts with his proposal to decrease the federal school safety budget by $425 million.  

I’m not sure what the answer is. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us do. However, there has to be a way that schools aren’t set up like prisons, students aren’t treated like prisoners, mental health issues don’t go unchecked, and increasing police presence at a school is the only way to deter mass violence.