Symbolic Meaning of Safety Measures
Phil Brocato   Ed.D.student, University of Southern California
Do high schools manufacture students or prisoners? The Columbine High School
shootings in Littleton, Colorado pressed into the minds of Americans that the
presence of violence in our high schools is real, and if not dealt with
effectively, will continue to plague the secondary school system. As a
result, school administrators increased measures of safety at their
respective schools, mainly in urban areas. These measures include, but are
not limited to, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and security
School officials feel that safety measures such as these will reduce the
potential and fear of violence among high school students. But, when high
school students are confronted upon entry, throughout the day, and as they
depart, there is a possibility that students will defy these safety measures..
That is, if students are treated like prisoners, and high school buildings
resemble and function similar to prisons, students may react to these
conditions. Questions concerning implementation and symbolic meaning of
safety measures are discussed in this paper.
A general description of Michel Foucault's interpretation of the Panopticon
is used to show how mechanisms of discipline for a prisoner and student are
similar. Also, an analysis of discipline as an exercise of power is explored
in Pedro A. Noguera's critical analysis of school violence. Specifically, if
safety measures are interpreted as symbols of violence by high school
students, and used as coercive strategies by school officials, they may
perpetuate defiance, instead of, prevent violence. An analysis of these
theoretical insights and participant observation at Garfield High School in
Los Angeles does not dispute current safety measures, but rather, considers
how these measures can affect the student(s) education.
Garfield High School in East Los Angeles is either the second or third
largest high school in the country; at any given time, the school population
is between 4,400 to 4,600 students. I visited Garfield High School to better
understand how safety measures are being implemented on high school campuses..
An analysis of this observation and theoretical perspectives from Pedro
Noguera, Michel Foucault and George Herbert Mead are used to interpret safety
measures, and make alternative suggestions for preventing violence.
It has always been a priority for educators to control students.
Historically, Noguera (1995) believes that educators, since the late
nineteenth century, have been agents of social control. However, when social
and cultural change in the 1960's transpired, the educator's role of control
agent began to change. Amidst this change was the acceptance that less
control would be in the best interest of educators and students alike. Over
the past 35 years, school officials have dealt with the problem of violence
in schools, but the criminal acts committed of late have stunned both school
officials and society, which has prompted school officials to take extreme
violence prevention measures. Is this a resurgence in the role of educators
from the late nineteenth century, "when public schools were profoundly
influenced by the prevailing conception of the asylum" (Noguera 1995)?
Foucault's theory of panopticism will shed some light on this resurgence of
control, and the effect it could have on students.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault describes
the workings of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, an architectural design that
permits a centralized guard to monitor all of an institution's inmates.
Foucault explains that the ultimate goal is for an inmate to internalize the
mechanism of surveillance established by the building. As a laboratory,
"this machine can be used to carry out experiments, to alter behavior and to
train individuals" (Foucault, 1975). From an educational perspective, the
concept of panopticism defines power relations through prison-like mechanisms
used to prevent violence.
Post Columbine, high school administrations are exercising their power by
adjusting existing safety policies or developing new ones. Safety measures
like metal detectors, surveillance cameras and security personnel are
measures that, if school officials are not careful with their implementation,
might be misinterpreted by high school students. George Herbert Mead is a
social psychologist whose work describes language as communication through
"significant symbols." Significant symbols are a set of responses between
individuals about an idea or object, which initiate an action. That is, if a
metal detector or security guard symbolizes violence, it may begin a set of
responses between students that symbolizes defiance. From a Foucaultian
perspective, this exercise of power shows how high schools conceptualize
students as objects of knowledge. It is important that we ask ourselves if
an exercise of power or a security guard make students feel punished or safe,
and whether or not these feelings affect the student(s) education.
At Garfield High School, students are required to remain behind tall, locked
fences while they are on school grounds. However, for some students, these
fences (significant symbols) incite defiance. According to a campus
employee, on breaks if student(s) feel like leaving school, they simply jump
the fence. Also, to prevent loitering and encourage attendance, students are
given ten minutes to get to class after the first bell (7:20 a.m.), but if
students are late, detention is imposed. As defined by school officials,
students are given three hours of detention, and required to sit in a
detention area where they are not allowed to study. If the student does not
complete detention before graduation, he/she will not graduate. This is
clearly an exercise of power by school officials to punish students. As a
method of punishment, school officials could at least let students do their
homework. After all, even prisoners are permitted to have books in their
cells. Instead of having an individual monitor every move she/he makes during
detention, what would happen if a student decides to skip detention? In East
Los Angeles, if a student is caught ditching school, the student gets a $250
loitering ticket that can either be paid off in dollars or community service..
Again, like the detention hours, if the ticket is not paid off before
graduation, the student will not graduate. This coercion of power, by school
officials, may be helpful in gaining knowledge to better understand why
students are late; at the same time, it clearly elucidates "the major effect
of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent
visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (Foucault, 1975)..
Another safety measure is a random search performed 2-3 times a day by Deans
and Assistant Principals. This search procedure is similar to those used in
shakedowns of prison cells -- a pat down of the individual and his/her
belongings. I was shocked to find out that students are verbally directed to
move from point A to point B with language like "keep moving" and "no
loitering." At this point, I was convinced a prison-like mentality was
included as part of some mission statement in the new "zero tolerance"
policies that high school campuses are adapting and implementing across this
country. Noguera (1995) sees this as a reactivation of power, as "sending a
message", similar to the role of educators (social control agents) of the
late nineteenth century. In other words, when school officials discipline
students by executing safety measures, and students behave accordingly, a
symbolic representation of power that exists in society is reinforced by the
school system. Taken from Foucault, the reactivation of power, and an
apparatus (Panopticon) for supervising its own mechanisms, both function to
sustain the functionary (school). The above-mentioned analysis of theoretical
and observational perspectives paints a vivid picture of high school
student(s) being treated like prisoners. On the other hand, safety measures
as such probably do reduce the number of violent incidents in high schools;
however, if there is a slight chance that symbolic cognitions surrounding
safety measures lead to defiance or influences a student's perception of
these measures, then maybe school officials should reconsider what the
implications might be.
As an alternative to detention, school officials at Garfield might consider
letting students use this time to mirror a program already in place. At
Garfield High School, students are able to join each other in discussion at
the "Haven": a place where students talk about campus related issues. In
speaking with students at Garfield, the whole concept of having a "Haven" on
campus excited them, as they see this as involving them in the process of
addressing the problem of violence. In the past, at Garfield, The Riterman
House was a place where students could enroll in a class that taught them how
to live in a home environment. In actuality, this class, used as an
alternative approach to existing safety measures, might establish a sense of
belonging in students, as most high school students lack this connection.
Unexpectedly, I discovered that Garfield did not have a walk-in counseling
office set up for intervention purposes. Instead, counseling offices deal
mainly with paper work. If school officials are going spend extra money on
extreme measures of safety, they should invest equally in adequate counseling
This paper, generally, explores how safety measures are enforced in high
schools to stop violence from occurring. These days, "zero tolerance"
policies are administrators' way of handling the problem of violence on
campuses. So, I ask, does building taller fences stop violence from
occurring, or are administrators manufacturing prisoners? We must consider
the students before taking such measures. Simply by taking down the fences,
and dealing with the problem humanely, school officials might get different
results. According to Jim Roybal, teacher at Garfield High School, "school
officials must respect the student(s), and place a greater emphasis on
his/her education." High schools are not socio-political edifices that
control and shape individual thought processes by exercising power through
safety measures; rather, the buildings promote positive learning experiences
for students. Yes, the implementations of extreme safety measures will make
some students feel safe, and others react, but students and administrators
together must come to recognize and solve this problem by taking alternative
measures. Working together, students and administrators can develop and fund
programs that engage them in a dialogue of awareness, not a Panopticon of
power relations reinforced by safety mechanisms.
Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New
York: Random House Inc.
Mead, G. H. (1932). Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University Press.
Noguera, A. Pedro (1995). Preventing and Producing Violence: A
Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence. Harvard Educational
Review, 65, 189-212.