It can happen at the beginning of any class period in any middle or high school in the Houston Independent School District. The teacher turns to the blackboard, but instead of discussing The Great Gatsby or solving an algebraic equation, the students get a lesson in what it's like to attend one of the most heavily policed school districts in the nation. HISD police officers, armed with guns and metal detectors, enter the classroom unannounced and search the room for weapons. In the last year officers also gained the right to conduct random searches with drug-sniffing dogs.
In March the HISD Police Department created security councils at every school. In April the district began no-notice random metal detector searches. The councils and searches are just two of many changes the administration made to improve security at its schools during this last academic year. Violence in district schools decreased 30 percent from 1997 to 1999, and the rate of children carrying weapons to class has dropped dramatically in the last six years (preliminary statistics for this school year through the end of March count 23 incidents). However, the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and school shootings elsewhere have prompted HISD to pass increasingly stricter rules.
For the weapons searches, an assistant superintendent uses a computer program to select two schools at random. A two-officer police team arrives on campus, heads to two classrooms and searches students and their belongings with a mobile walk-though or handheld metal detector. The search of a classroom is intended to take no longer than ten minutes, to minimize disruption.
Students who refuse to be searched face an automatic three-day suspension -- and are searched anyway. A student who refuses to be searched twice in a school year is automatically expelled and sent to an alternative education program for up to a year.
Since the random searches began on April 7, police teams have gone to one high school and four middle schools. The seized contraband? Three pagers, six pairs of scissors, two CD players, one box cutter and a cell phone.
Other policies added to the Code of Student Conduct during this past school year call for equally unforgiving punishment. Students who bring BB or pellet guns, replicas of guns or live ammunition to school are automatically suspended and placed in an alternative education program. Possession of a laser pointer results in the same penalty.
Twenty schools have added security cameras. Many have also installed extra lighting, fencing, panic buttons and two-way radio systems. Three elementary schools have started locking doors from the inside. Other changes, including antigang measures, are aimed at students. Trench coats have been banned at Austin High School and Jackson Middle School. Milby High School outlawed denim. And at Houston Gardens Elementary, all students are now fingerprinted.
While HISD prides itself on a zero-tolerance policy, which means offenders are immediately suspended or expelled, some parents believe the district has overreacted with harsh punishments.
In May a sixth-grader brought a lighter shaped like a handgun to Pershing Middle School (see "The Pershing Eight," by John Suval, May 18). The eight children who handled the lighter, none of whom had records of serious discipline problems, were expelled or transferred to other schools.
"[School officials] have done something very drastic for a little thing. It's a toy gun," parent Florentino Arellano told the Houston Press last month. His 11-year-old son was one of the students who was expelled.
After the Columbine shootings, the HISD Police Department also created a "Special Response Team" trained in SWAT tactics to respond to emergencies and rescue hostages. Seventeen HISD officers formed the team in addition to their regular duties and practice together on a bimonthly basis.
The team's training and equipment cost about $45,000. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says he does not know how much money the district spent on safety improvements, or how they were financed, since security upgrades are a school-by-school decision. And based on documents obtained by the Press through an open records request, HISD itself appears to have no idea of the overall price it pays for security.
District officials say the total cost for the 177-officer police force and related programs is about $12 million annually. Records show the district spent close to $34,000 in the last two academic years supplying some schools with money for new equipment -- but that constitutes only a fraction of the total spending. Some schools reported installing security cameras and other equipment, yet their records indicate they spent as little as $3 on security budgets. Changes have ranged from Peck Elementary ordering whistles for all its staff members to Milam Elementary purchasing handheld metal detectors.
While the district did not clarify the contradictions in documents, Abbott was ready to elaborate on safety as the district's first priority, and the need for a separate HISD police squad.
"We celebrate it. Parents have a better feeling when they send their children to our schools now that those children will be safe."
HISD is one of only a few districts to have its own professional canine unit and a SWAT-type team, but not everyone is impressed with the emphasis on policing. James Alan Fox, a former dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, says that such security methods are an over-the-top waste of money.
"Some of the aggressive security methods are out of proportion with the risks," says Fox, now a Northeastern University professor, who advises the White House on school safety. "It creates a fortresslike environment that can only distract from the learning environment and is a constant reminder to kids of how vulnerable they are."
"That's like saying that our schools are oversafe," Abbott says. He notes that there is only one uniformed HISD officer for every 1,300 students and employees. To claim that is overpolicing is "ridiculous on its face," he says. Abbott points to rising TAAS scores as proof that safety efforts don't hamper students' abilities to learn.
Test scores, Fox says, are not the only measure of the learning environment. Students would benefit more from money spent on supplies, teacher salaries and other improvements to the quality of education, he says, rather than on elaborate security measures. The risk of school violence is one in two million, he notes, about the same as being struck by lightning.
"My concern is that in a willy-nilly fashion we have rushed to oversecure our school buildings in spite of the fact that schools are the safest place for schoolkids to be," Fox says. "The rate of violence in the school is less than at the mall, even less than in the homes."