Circumventing the Law: Students’ Rights in Schools With Police

Date01 August 2010
Published date01 August 2010
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
26(3) 294 –315
© 2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1043986210368645
Circumventing the Law:
Students’ Rights in
Schools With Police
Nicole L. Bracy, PhD1
Over the past several decades, public schools in the United States have been
increasingly transformed into high security environments, complete with surveillance
technologies, security forces, and harsh punishments. The school resource officer
(SRO) program, which assigns uniformed police officers to work in public schools,
is one significant component of this new brand of school security. Although the
intentions of the SRO program are clear—to help administrators maintain order in
schools, deter students from committing criminal acts, and arrest students who do
break the law—the potential unintended consequences of this program are largely
unknown. This study employs ethnographic methodology in two public high schools
with SROs to examine how students’ rights, including Fourth Amendment rights,
Fifth Amendment rights, and privacy rights, are negotiated in public schools with full-
time police presence. The results of this study suggest that schools administrators
and SROs partner in ways that compromise and reduce the legal rights of students.
school security, school police, rights, surveillance, school searches
Despite the attention they have garnered in the past decade, school crime and school
crime prevention are not entirely new concerns in the United States. Controlling crime
and maintaining order in schools have been objectives since the beginning of the
public school system (Crews & Counts, 1997). Over the past several decades, how-
ever, the problem of school crime has been mischaracterized. Educators, legislators,
parents, and community members have all expressed concerns about rising rates of
1San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
Corresponding Author:
Nicole L. Bracy, 3900 Fifth Avenue, Suite 310, San Diego, CA 92103
Bracy 295
violence in schools, despite data showing that school violence has been declining
(Hyman et al., 1996; Morrison & Furlong, 1994). These concerns about school crime,
despite their disconnection from actual crime rates, have created a powerful demand
for tougher policies to make schools safer and have contributed to the physical and
ideological transformation of public schools into regimented, high-security environ-
ments (Simon, 2007).
Although most severe crime problems are concentrated in a small proportion of
urban schools, school crime has increasingly come to be understood as a serious prob-
lem of all schools (Simon, 2007). This perception has been exacerbated by a handful
of highly publicized incidents of suburban and rural school violence, such as the 1997
shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School,
and 2001 shootings at Santana High School (Herda-Rapp, 2003). Due to the scale and
novelty of these tragedies, they garnered a significant amount of national news media
attention, which fueled public concerns that school violence could strike anywhere, at
any time. In a study by Kupchik and Bracy (2009), the authors find that newspaper
articles portray school violence as bad and/or getting worse, despite declining national
rates of school violence. The depiction of school violence in this manner heightens
public fear and supports the notion that intensive school security measures are war-
ranted (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009).
Public perceptions of failing, disorderly schools and fears of increasing school vio-
lence have created demands for accountability and reform in public schools across the
country.1 Contemporary public schools can be described as high security environ-
ments, complete with police officers (known as School Resource Officers or SROs),
security guards, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, in-school suspension rooms,
locker searches, drug-sniffing dogs, ID badges, and dress codes in public schools across
the country (Dinkes, Cataldi, & Lin-Kelly, 2007). These measures are used to deter
students from committing crimes at school and to swiftly apprehend those that do
(Jackson, 2002). Surveillance strategies are then supplemented with exclusionary pun-
ishments, such as suspension, expulsion, and arrest, of students who break school
rules. Surveillance and punishment comprise the new face of school safety.
When considering why schools have chosen to implement these particular methods
for the purposes of promoting safety and reducing crime over alternatives (such as
drastically increasing the number of school counselors, for example) it is useful to
look at larger social changes in addressing crime and criminals. David Garland (2001)
contends that contemporary American society is preoccupied with policing and pun-
ishment, citing a dramatic increase in the use of imprisonment over the past 30 years
as evidence of this fixation. He points to the structural and cultural changes of the late
modern period, which have led to the politicization of crime issues and subsequent
decline of penal welfarism. The result of this shift is a society disinterested in rehabili-
tating offenders and progressively more interested in removing them from society.
Loic Wacquant (2009) argues that the poor have borne the brunt of this shift as the
penal state has replaced the welfare regime, and the poor are controlled through incar-
ceration and the surveillance of parole.

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