Enclosed Minds

Fences around schools do kids more harm than good.

In an effort to create a climate of safety, the Tucson Unified School District is subjecting children to a culture that institutionalizes fear, mistrust and suspicion. Observers attuned to the psychology of kids warn that the fences surrounding TUSD high schools--designed to keep students on campus and miscreants off--are a glaring example of how the public school system adopts reactive solutions to complex societal problems.

Psychologists and education researchers express concern about how students internalize a daily regimen of enclosures, monitors and checkpoints. Though the long-range effects of schooling behind fences remain uncharted, the experience of one group of students sounds a warning bell.

While researching a report on Auschwitz, Jorge Sepulveda, a 16-year-old at Pueblo Magnet High School, noticed the similarity between the fences surrounding his school and those he saw in photographs of the concentration camp. After sharing his observation with classmates, they agreed and concluded "there shouldn't be any fences." Though Sepulveda said that most of the time he doesn't pay attention to the fences, the daily trip into Pueblo is an exception. "When I'm riding the bus to school it looks like a prison or something."

The similarities between school and prison fences are more than visual: The language of criminal incarceration has crept into the public school system under the guise of safe schools and violence prevention. "Sweeps," "lockdown," "perimeter," "surveillance" are words now shared by wardens and educators. This culture of containment increases students' anxiety and "stimulates survival-level fear," according to Kenny Miller, a clinical social worker who works with adolescents in his private practice. Psychologically, fences are perceived as an external symbol protecting one from harm. But "that kind of arming yourself doesn't reduce the threat."

That threat, the source of the fear, is rooted in a consumerist society that creates a sharp division between the haves and have-nots, according to Ed Muller, a retired psychotherapist. He would like to see "a sane society not run by consumerism." This issue is not being addressed, and he fears that fences serve as ineffectual Band-Aids.

While fences do not change what is "out there," they do have an impact on the learning process. Tom Scarborough, Cholla Magnet High School's principal, believes fences are a psychological barrier to learning and growing. "Fences divide the way we think and keep out more than physical things," he said. Others agree.

Wayne Holtzman, Arizona delegate to the American Association of School Psychologists, believes fences stifle creativity and produce children ill-equipped for problem-solving. Fences represent an authoritarian, "police state" solution to the question of school safety, he said. Holtzman's views are supported by Regine Ebner, a family counselor and director of the Montessori Schoolhouse.

"We're still living in an authoritarian society," she said. Fences are "another sign of how authorities don't respect kids." Giving children real responsibility and treating them with respect would go a long way to reducing the need for fences. But "control is ingrained in our culture," Ebner believes.

Responding to questions about fences and school safety, Marcus Jones, TUSD's director of engineering and planning services, states, "Fencing can serve to enhance school safety in several ways. The most obvious is that it keeps the students ... contained within a manageable space. Secondly, and in some cases perhaps more importantly, it provides a level of control over visitors to the campus."

But there are serious consequences when such measures are incorporated into a school environment. Several researchers quoted in a Psychology Today article by Michael Easterbrook worry that the strategies public schools are employing to reduce school violence and increase safety may backfire. Renate Nummela Caine, professor emeritus of educational psychology at California State University-San Bernadino, believes that students' brains may "downshift" to more primitive states when they feel threatened or helpless. The ability to think becomes limited and instinctive rather than creative.

If education researcher Julio Cammarota is correct, the objective of the public school system is something other than producing creative, problem-solving citizens. "Society is afraid of young people, and schools have become institutions of discipline and control," Cammarota said in a recent interview. The researcher, whose work focuses on school safety measures and violence prevention, believes the nation has a long history of establishing policy based on fear. In the end, a generation of students conditioned in a climate of control is precisely what is needed to produce passive worker bees suitable for a technocratic state.

Perhaps fences are the latest manifestation of a public school system that values predictability and management over the free rein of curiosity and exploration. According to Scarborough: "Learning is really a very natural, very stimulating and very pleasant activity. But for 200 years in our country, and longer in other parts of the world, we've managed to build structures--fences--which pretty much take the fun out of learning, stifle natural curiosity, but develop compliant citizens who will complacently play their expected roles in our social machine."

Surrounding students with fences, limiting their freedom of movement, subjecting them to checkpoints may ostensibly protect them from harm--at least during school hours--but at what price? One thing is certain: It's easier and less threatening to build fences than to change the conditions necessitating them.

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