When school feels like prison, test scores, college attendance drop

Students at high schools with prominent security measures have lower math scores, are less likely to attend college and are suspended more compared to students in schools with less surveillance, finds a new Johns Hopkins University study.

The drop in average test scores and college enrollment persists even for students who haven’t been suspended, suggesting the consequences of surveillance intended for students perceived as troublesome spills over into the educational experience of all students. The findings, in one of the first studies to measure the effects of school surveillance on educational outcomes, suggests negative implications as school systems nationwide further bulk up security in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting.

“When schools feel like prisons, the impact isn’t localized to the students perceived as problematic — it has collateral consequences for kids irrespective of their behavior,” says author Odis Johnson, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Social Policy and STEM Equity. “We’re suggesting there is a safety tax that all students pay in those schools.”

The work is newly published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

Johnson, who is also executive director of the university’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, studies racial disparities in education and law enforcement, including the effect of school discipline on young people’s achievement. Knowing discipline has an effect, here his team wanted to know: What about the surveillance in itself?

School security measures the study considered include metal detectors, random metal detector checks, closing campuses for lunch, random dog sniffs, random contraband sweeps, drug testing, uniform requirements, strict dress codes, clear book bag requirements, student identification badge requirements; faculty dentification badge requirements, and security cameras.

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