Metal detectors won’t make schools safer

PATRICK J. MCCLOSKEY

There is not one metal detector at any Catholic school in U.S., even in the most dangerous areas.

Rice High School

The tragic stabbing death of a high school student on Monday in Cornwall, Ont., has generated calls for metal detectors, more security guards and surveillance cameras in schools. It's a familiar refrain following such events. Yet there is little evidence to suggest tighter security is the best guard against school violence. Similar security systems have been deployed at urban public schools across the U.S. for decades to little effect. In contrast, American Catholic high schools deal with this problem far more successfully by confronting the culture of youth violence head on. There is not one metal detector at any Catholic school in U.S., even in the most dangerous areas. This phenomenon is not restricted to parochial schools: a small number of inner-city public schools that have adopted the Catholic model (minus religion class) achieve similar results.

To Canadian eyes, most urban public high schools south of the border resemble a prison more than an educational institution. Still, a landmark nationwide survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2004, a third of high school students reported being in at least one physical fight in the previous 12 months. This proportion rises sharply in the most impoverished neighbourhoods.

I spent a school year at Rice High School, an all-boys Catholic high school in central Harlem, as a journalist, and reported on other Catholic schools as I wrote a book about inner-city education. There were a handful of scuffles at Rice, and several years before, one student was caught with a knife.

Although some Rice students sang in the school's chorus, they weren't stereotypical choirboys. Most lived in housing projects infested with gangs and drugs. And most had attended public elementary schools and arrived as freshmen concerned about maintaining their reputations. To be seen as soft — meaning kindhearted, gentle — on the street makes a youngster vulnerable to being ruthlessly victimized. The pressure from peers to resolve conflicts through violence is immense.

From the moment Rice students walk into the school, an ethos begins transforming their hardened attitudes and separating them from street culture's survival of the fittest code. In every class and during extracurricular activities, teachers, coaches and guidance counsellors continually teach the young men how they should behave, not only as students in class, but also on the street, at home and as citizens in society.


From the moment Rice students walk into the school, an ethos begins transforming their hardened attitudes and separating them from street culture's survival of the fittest code.


Teaching a moral approach is difficult; often half the freshman class serve detention. But by the end of the ninth grade, virtually all students buy into the idea that whenever a behavioural choice presents itself, they need to consider not merely what they want to do — and certainly not what they can get away with — but what is the best ethical decision. They learn that obeying reasonable rules is important and the underlying reasons why.

The basic value the teachers transmit is respect for the intrinsic worth of every human being. From this flows a moral code that eschews violence. Intrinsic worth means there is never a justification for hurting someone else, except in selfdefence. While class discussions involve students in viewing social and historical issues in ethical terms, thereby broadening the principle of intrinsic value to include the larger society and the world, the greatest difficulty students have is accepting their own worth.

As Rice's principal correctly perceived, the moral approach he taught during in-class visits and through his teachers would not endure unless the students saw how it applies directly to them. He spent an enormous amount of time working with students and teaching teachers how to counsel students on how to accept their own value. Because of the breakdown of the family — especially poignant in this area where 85% of the students live in single-parent, mother-only households — students feel abandoned because they aren't worthy.

Once students value themselves and others, a moral approach takes permanent hold. This coupled with teaching conflict resolution skills empowers students to succeed both academically and as human beings.

No approach completely protects students, especially in large institutions, from those who are so troubled that violence is their only means of self expression. But a school culture that emphasizes the dignity and value of every individual can inculcate almost all students with the habit of stopping and asking what they should do in a crisis or in distress. And that pause almost always diffuses aggression.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Patrick J. McCloskey. "Metal detectors won’t make schools safer." National Post, (Canada) May 16, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Patrick J. McCloskey is the author of The Street Stops Here to be published by the University of California (Berkeley) Press in January, 2009.

Copyright © 2008 National Post




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