State Report Tells Schoolkids: Inform, Conform, and Trust the Police

"La Cucaracha", August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz
“La Cucaracha”, August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

Following on from the Sandy Hook school shooting, the “Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security” released a report in July. As you’d expect from a report written with plenty of police input and none from the civil liberties community, it recommends changes that are highly intrusive, probably ineffective, definitely expensive, and likely to benefit police more than they benefit students.

Of course, that’s not how it’s being reported. Local papers, including my own, are portentously explaining how this is all “for the kids” and will “keep them safe” (I’d link to the Belmont Citizen-Herald’s exhaustive coverage, but it’s not up yet).

The most important thing to understand regarding school shootings is that school districts can’t prevent them. I wish they could, but they can’t. School shootings happen far too much in the US, largely because we spend too little on mental health services and allow, as a matter of constitutional principle, broad access to guns. School shootings also tend to happen more in rural and suburban districts where the schools are pretty much the only place that will grab the attention of the whole community.

Nothing school districts can do will change these things. However, in fear that they ought to be doing something, it’s very possible for school districts to misdirect funds better spent on education, and impose inappropriate systems of surveillance and control.

Let’s look anew, with a critical eye, at what’s being suggested.

First, the report recommends introducing “school resources officers” – often retired police officers – into schools to develop relationships with students, and encourages trainings that would teach “young children not to be frightened of police.” This, in a country where the police kill an absolute minimum of one American per day, and where crises like the one in Ferguson show that visible minorities’ fears of police are very well-grounded.

How about we teach kids the truth instead?

Individual police officers, like other people, are often good at heart. However, police officers in general are not legally required to protect you, and aren’t always on your side if you’re in trouble. They are allowed to lie to you and about you, and can even kill you without going to jail if they feel you’re disrespecting them. If you are stopped by the police, for your own safety, stay polite and calm. If they arrest you, invoke your right to stay silent, and say nothing till your lawyer arrives.

Adding a new, armed, expensive “school resources officer” at a school for “school safety” seems to me like adding a gun to a home for “home safety”: It increases every person’s risk of death or injury. If the armed police officer hurts or entraps or even kills your child, even by accident, will they be held accountable? Bluntly, based on how it’s gone down in other towns, probably not.

Students who “struggle socially or emotionally” will be “identified” and “intervened with.” “Anonymous threat reporting” will allow students and citizens “to report threats of school violence”, and as we all know, kids would never ever lie about that to get someone into trouble they were bullying, didn’t like, or were biased against. Our local SWAT team, the Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which is so hostile to transparency about its policies and procedures that the ACLU is suing it, will be empowered to intervene on the basis of such reports. As icing on the cake, our local infamous Fusion Centers, who were caught spying on peaceful activists, who failed to thwart the Marathon bombings, and who continue to gather mounds of unverified, often racially motivated gossip on Massachusetts residents, will be given “information on every school in the Commonwealth.”

Great. How many of our kids will end up in the Fusion Center’s “Suspicious Activity” database? Well, how many of us did at least one thing in school that some other kid or some member of the public might conceivably find “suspicious” if they saw it? More or less all of us. In middle school, I chatted with the communists at the school gate at recess, and had long conversations for a few months with a hobo camping in the school grounds. How about you?

All they need under this new plan is an anonymous report, not reasonable suspicion, or the Fourth Amendment’s stern requirement of probable cause. And once in that database, you can’t ever get that report removed, even if the information about you is shown to be false. That’s the new world of the surveillance state: Nothing that you are alleged to have done, once digitized, can be forgotten. The inevitable result is that students who look or act “different” to others – who are poor, on IEPs, from ethnic or religious minorities, are autistic or depressed, or who simply have unusual taste in accessories, will be singled out, harassed, and written up.

Can we stop and think a moment about what this means for students who are having violent or suicidal thoughts? The incentives under this system are very clear for that student: Don’t tell anybody. Don’t try and get them resolved. If you do, you’ll be “identified” for “intervention,” be permanently flagged as “suspicious,” and have your name irreversibly added to the surveillance state’s unconstitutional thoughtcrimes haystack. Set up the incentives this way, and you will make students less safe, not more safe.

Apparently, we’re also supposed to fund lots of monthly “school safety” preparedness meetings, and no doubt slide presentations, lengthy reports, conferences, maybe even retreats. Law enforcement will rack up overtime, school administrators and teachers will be taken away from education-related activities, and both will spend time on your dime having to hyperventilate about threats that are unpreventable, highly improbable, or both. Whoever is profiting here, it’s not us.

Last, of course, every single ingress, egress and movement of adult visitors within a school building must apparently be tracked and monitored with cameras and ID cards. It will hamper every single event that any of our schools or PTAs runs. Who cares, right – it’s for “safety”! But think about it: In a school shooting or suicide situation, all cameras will do is document what happened, not prevent it. On an everyday basis, cameras will merely encourage students to conform where the cameras are running, and do their rulebreaking elsewhere.

Maybe that really is what the government means by being a good citizen these days. I don’t agree.

I’m glad to say that I love my daughters’ elementary school. We’re blessed to have a deep culture of trust and cooperation between teachers, parents and students, and a lively culture of free inquiry. That can’t be legislated, but it can be undermined, and these proposals are just the thing to undermine it. We should not accept an oppressive apparatus of surveillance and control just because we’re scared about school safety and want to feel like we’re doing something.

2 thoughts on “State Report Tells Schoolkids: Inform, Conform, and Trust the Police”

  1. Thank you for this well-researched article. In Massachusetts, I find that most people want government to do as much as possible to keep residents under control. It’s hard to find voices in favor of minimal government intervention. There are a couple of strategies that can work here, such as: 1) Citing solid scientific research that shows harm caused by intervention; 2) Ensuring that the rich and powerful go through the same screenings, harassment, and paperwork as everyone else; and 3) Funding student groups who are willing to rally or protest for the cause. I would also be interested in reading your thoughts about how to influence policy here.

  2. Thank you for your comments, David. The fusion center and law enforcement problem is a very substantial one. Here are two of our current responses.

    Digital Fourth has a new 501c3 research arm, “Digital Fourth Amendment Research and Education, Inc.” (, and we are engaging in solidly based empirical research into surveillance, so that is part of it.

    If you’re interested in engaging with our group working on legislative organizing, we have a meeting this Sunday night, 6:30pm at the Summer Shack near Alewife T station in Cambridge. Alternatively, we host a weekly policy discussion roundtable at Voltage Cafe, Third Street, Cambridge, at 11:30am on Thursdays. You’d be welcome to join us.

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