When we first visited the school that is the focus of our forthcoming book, “Navigating Conflict: How Youth Handle Trouble in a High-Poverty School,” back in 1995, students were free to move about campus during lunch and other free periods and a culture of trust prevailed.
All that changed during the 1999-2000 school year. That’s when a new principal arrived at the school – a racially diverse, urban school in the Southwest. School renovation started with funding secured in the name of “safe schools.”
Bushes, trees and lockers were deemed security hazards and removed. Security gates and metal detectors were installed. School officials hired more security personnel and cut back students’ freedom of movement on campus dramatically. The school implemented “sweeps,” which meant any student without a signed pass found outside of class or the designated eating area would be escorted to a room called the “tank,” where they would be detained for the remainder of the school day. Students who violated restrictive rules related to movement on campus faced heavy discipline, which included an automatic parent conference followed by up to five days of out-of-school suspension.
Teachers and students began to voice concerns about the tightened security to each other and protested to the administration. All this set up an interesting case for us to examine as field researchers who study conflict in organizations.
Ironically, what we found is that the tightened security measures eroded the ethos of trust that facilitated peace among students. Notably, whereas before students settled conflict peacefully among themselves, now peer violence increased on campus, which is something we discovered in our field research and that was corroborated with school district and local law enforcement data. The average annual number of police calls from the campus nearly quadrupled after the implementation of the new security measures. Before the tightened security, school district data revealed that the school was as safe as any in the district, including suburban schools in the surrounding area.