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Ahmed Mohamed is a victim of American schools' harmful obsession with security

Security cameras are just part of how schools have turned into fortresses.
Security cameras are just part of how schools have turned into fortresses.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The case of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school, has been seen as a particularly vivid example of how terrified Americans can be of Muslims doing, well, anything.

But there's another kind of paranoia at play here, too: the notion that schools are embattled fortresses that must be protected, no matter the financial and psychological cost, including to students themselves. The letter the Irving Independent School District sent to parents was steeped in the language of terrorism. "Imminent threat." "Suspicious-looking item." "Immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior." It reads like it was ghostwritten by the TSA.

The idea that schools are constantly under threat is pervasive, fueling an industry of bulletproof whiteboards and classroom panic buttons. But the fear behind this is both ungrounded and damaging. School shootings happen too frequently, but that doesn't negate the fact that going to school in the US is safer than it's been in at least two decades.

This might just seem like a harmless abundance of caution: These are children we're talking about; shouldn't we do everything in our power to protect them? But it's not. The case of Ahmed Mohamed proves that our obsession with school security can have real negative consequences.

Schools are becoming fortresses

When you look at American schools today, you increasingly see obsessions with security — an obsession that tends to go hand in hand with fear.

Seventy percent of schools have shooting drills, according to the Education Department, up from 58 percent in 2008. They're now only slightly less common than drills for natural disasters. Some of these drills simply run through lockdown procedures, but others are hyperrealistic, with some students posing as victims and the hallways splashed with fake blood.

An entire industry has sprung up to make untested products that are supposed to protect students. Consultants train teachers on how to fight back against armed intruders. You can buy bulletproof whiteboards and classroom door barricades. Schools unable to spend money have turned to more homespun solutions, such as the Alabama school that asked students to bring in canned goods — not for a food drive, but in case they had to throw them at an attacker.

The clearest illustration of this fear came two weeks ago on the Today show on NBC News. A five-minute segment was devoted to the "Safest School in America," a high school in Shelbyville, Indiana, that has taken every precaution possible to protect its students:

Every classroom has bullet-resistant doors and a panic button. Classroom floors are painted with a red line to indicate where students should hide during lockdowns so they're not visible from the hallway. The sheriff's department can watch a constant loop of dozens of security cameras from 10 miles away. And the ceilings have hidden smoke cannons that can be set off in case of intruders.

The security system costs $400,000. Although part of it was donated and the school got grants to help cover the rest of the costs, the media praise of this system sends the clear message that other schools should be spending six figures on such security features.

Nobody asked if it's actually a good idea to have 14-year-old students go to school in a fortress, to be constantly reminded of a terrifying thing that will almost certainly never happen to them. Nobody pointed out that allowing adults with no connection to the school to watch high school students' every move on camera seems a little creepy.

And, most disturbingly, nobody asked about the side effects of smoke cannons — which are chemical weapons — or the easily imagined scenarios where they might be wrongly used. What if students get in a fight in the hallway? What if a student with special needs is disruptive or violent? What if the system is simply set off by mistake?

There was only one message: Look how safe this school is! Of course schools should strive to keep all their students safe, and not just from armed intruders. But the implication from the Today segment was that "safety" means fortress-style safety, that the biggest threat to students' security is a school shooting, and that it makes sense to organize an entire school around this fear.

And that fear helps explain why the Irving school and local police would want to handcuff, question, and arrest a 14-year-old boy who had made what was clearly, on even cursory inspection, just a clock.

"It used to be that education was the No. 1 thing schools did," the district superintendent told Today's Jeff Rossen. "Now we have to keep our students safe first."

If that's true, it's not because schools have gotten more dangerous. It's because Americans have gotten more paranoid.

Schools are very safe places for students

Parents have been particularly worried about schools since at least 1999, when the Columbine shooting led the majority to say that they fear their children weren't safe at school, according to Gallup. The horrific Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 caused fears to spike again:


But only 10 percent say their kids have expressed concern for their safety. The kids have it right. School shootings are terrible, and they happen far too frequently, but individual students are still very, very safe at school.

"Serious violent victimization" among students — rape, sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault — was one-tenth as common in 2011 as it was in 1995, according to the Education Department. In 1995, 10 percent of students were victims of some kind of crime at school; in 2011, just 4 percent were.

Nearly one-third of parents, though, say they worry about their students' safety. That's even though being killed at school is about as likely as being struck by lightning:

School homicides

Thirty-one students were killed at school in the 2010-'11 school year, out of nearly 50 million public school students.

That's the last year for which final data is available; obviously, in 2012, Sandy Hook drove up the homicide rate. But it doesn't seem to have changed the overall trend. In the two years after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012, there were 49 shootings at K-12 schools in the US, according to a report from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group. Fifteen of those shootings killed at least one person.

Every death of a child is a tragedy. But we don't overreact to the far greater threats that children face outside the classroom in the same way. In 2013, 640 children under 13 were killed in car crashes, and 207 were killed as pedestrians. Thirty died while riding their bikes. As many as 100 children were killed in accidents involving guns.

Schools aren't just being overly cautious, they're promoting a dangerous level of fear

The cult of school security is harmful on two fronts. First, it encourages schools to focus on highly unlikely events, such as an armed intruder, rather than more real and quotidian dangers. More schools have plans for dealing with active shooters than have plans for threats of suicide, for example, even though children and high school students are more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by anyone else (although suicides rarely happen on school grounds).

And second, it encourages a mindset that officials must do whatever it takes to ensure that students are "safe." That single-minded obsession with safety can be counterproductive, including for students themselves.

The arrest of Ahmed Mohamed is an example of how this mindset, far from keeping students safe, can actually hurt them.

Everyone in Irving, Texas, who has tried to justify the arrest of this 14-year-old kid in a NASA T-shirt has done so in the same way: by arguing that security is schools' first priority.

"We have all seen terrible and violent acts committed in schools. … Perhaps some of those could have ben prevented and lives could have been spared if people were more vigilant," Irving's mayor wrote on Facebook, praising the school for following procedures.

"Vigilance," here, should be read as "dealing with any potential threat, no matter how ridiculous or misinterpreted, in the strictest possible way." It's the school-based equivalent of making every flier take off their shoes even though there's no evidence that this actually makes flying safer.

But as long as schools can present their policies as in the interest of "safety," they never have to apologize or explain.

"This is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away," the district wrote to parents. "We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students' security."

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