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Maybe Joe Clark Was Right

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Firsthand experience with a threatening high schoolcampus changed my thoughts on school security.

Christina SchallerIT SEEMS A SHAME to use ed tech funds on security rather than instructional tools, but basic needs take precedence. I came to this point of view in college, during my internship teaching at a high school. My students appeared to be straight out of the movie Lean on Me, before Morgan Freeman stepped in. Freeman’s character was based on Principal Joe Clark, who chained the doors on Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ, to protect the students who wanted to succeed. Since the chains violated the fire code, they weren’t a workable solution, but they symbolized Clark’s unconventional, tough-love dedication to turningaround that ship of urban decay.

I started student-teaching filled with idealism, but soon my own thinking ran along the lines of locks and chains. In one month, a student threatened to kill his teacher over a quiz grade. Another student took a bat to windshields in the faculty parking lot. And when I asked the lead teacher why our classroom always had an odor, she explained that while a sub was on duty, a student had urinated on the carpet. Additionally, drug deals and violence in the halls were routine.

A more practical response than chains was in order. Metal detectors to at least keep weapons out of school would have been a start, but policy interfered. For example, I saw an administrator challenge a student, who knew the man had no real recourse and ran. The man chased the student and almost caught him, snagging him momentarily by his backpack. My lead teacher told me the administrator was out of line—not only were faculty members not allowed to touch students, even touching that backpack was forbidden. Maybe the man eventually tracked down the student and pegged him with detention, but that and suspension were the only disciplinary options, and they didn’t seem to act as deterrents.

But the kids were not the only factor in the security equation. Another experience made that plain to me. One morning, as I walked toward the school from my car, one of my students walked briskly toward the door— not his usual pace. His linebacker build, body language, and AK-47 necklace charm normally said he was invincible, but there I caught a flash of fear in his eyes. “That guy shouldn’t be here,” he said, brushing past me so it wouldn’t look as though he had spoken to a teacher.

By the fence near the entrance to the school lurked the man he recognized. I rushed to a classroom and used the intercom to alert the principal’s office—technology to the rescue. The man was escorted off the premises, but I knew he could have walked right into the building, and he could return.

As a result of these incidents, I came to see my earlier notions as more utopian than idealistic. This latter threat may have been thwarted by today’s retinal scanners and visitor sign-in policies, but technology advancements and stricter procedures can’t change a golden rule: Safety first. What that school needed was a Joe Clark, a man who walked the corridors with a bullhorn in one hand and a baseball bat in the other, to shake things up.

That opinion is likely to raise some eyebrows, but the traditional methods failed and endangered everyone at the school. Reexamining the rules may have helped uncover a solution. That may not sound visionary, but what’s a vision without the security to carry it out?

— Christina Schaller, Managing Editor

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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