Security Works at Disney — But Can't Work at a Public School?
Listen to Ryan McMaken's commentary on the Radio Rothbard podcast.
An odd thing has happened. Advocates for gun control have actually begun arguing against practical measures addressing school security. Rather than take strategies that can be implemented virtually immediately, and which address the dangers in a specific place in a common-sense way, gun control advocates would rather focus on a political victory at some point in the future and continue to leave schools without proper security measures.
The general argument is that any effort at meaningful security is unacceptable because it turns schools into "fortresses." Numerous examples of this line of reasoning can be found on Twitter. They are often remarkably similar in message which is "forget school security, just ban guns!" Ah yes, the "ban guns" solution. It certainly worked in Latin America. And, of course, as soon as they're banned, everyone will immediately turn theirs in to the authorities and no one will have them anymore. Security of any sort will immediately and forever be rendered unnecessary. At least, this is how the thinking goes.
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Others are filled with reasons why security is useless. They point out that Columbine High School had security cameras, and this therefore proves that all security measures have no effect.
Gun control advocates in social media have also begun passing around this article (by Bryan Warnick, Benjamin Johnson, and Sam Rocha) titled "Why security measures won't stop school shootings." The article, however, only briefly asserts (without argumentation) that that security won't work and barely touches on the tactics of so-called "target hardening." Most of the article is actually devoted to a sociological discussion of how a kinder, gentler, school environment will make school shootings less likely. It looks more at the effects of security on student attitudes. Not even the article's sources much support the theory that greater security makes a school more "scary." A prominently cited-study within the article, called "Predicting Perceptions of Fear at School and Going to and From School for African American and White Students" does not support the idea. Indeed, the study found that when security is applied "aggressively," within the school, students report feeling less fearful.1
But, the overall strategy here is startling. Gun control advocates are in a way holding school children hostage to their message by shooting down calls for better school security. Their essential position is "no security for children until we get the gun control legislation we want!"
Security at Theme Parks
Most of the talk about schools being turned into dreary "fortresses" is pure sentimentalism, of course. But, it's the sort of thing we should expect from panic-prone Americans, many of whom routinely overestimate the threats to their safety.
Meanwhile, many responsible owners of private facilities — i.e., not public schools — have already implemented just the sort of security measures that anti-security advocates now denounce as measures that turn schools into "prisons."
Disney theme parks in California, for example, implemented metal detectors in 2015. Orlando theme parks, including Sea World, and the Universal Parks have implemented metal detectors and other security measures as well.
The theme parks have implemented just the sort of security that we're told turns the place into a "fortress" and will make everyone feel as if he is in inside "a prison." But, the park owners want greater security lest they are subject to lawsuits that might result from a mass-shooter situation. Theme parks — especially Disney — are famous for keeping security unobtrusive, but it is most certainly present. At the same time, theme park owners are motivated to make security as pleasant an experience as possible. This is why security personnel is trained to be friendly and professional.
Meanwhile, Disney reported a 13% increase in theme park revenue in 2017. It seems that the "fortress" isn't keeping all that many visitors away.
Security at a State Legislature
Theme parks aren't the only places where security is done better than at public schools.
Early in my career, I was a lobbyist at the Colorado state capitol in Denver. Prior to 2007 — except for a short period following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington — the building had unrestricted access, with on-site, armed security.
In 2007, a man armed with a handgun entered the building and threatened personnel in and around the governor's office. He was shot dead by on-site security. Building access was heavily restricted after that.
Nowadays, all visitors must go through a basic security screening unless they are members of the legislature, or are pre-approved personnel subjected to background checks. Hundreds of people pass through the building each day.
But, even those of us who had go through the screening would enter and exit the building multiple times per day. This meant going back through the screening. It was marginally inconvenient, and we questioned the need given the presence of on-site security personnel. But in general, it wasn't a big deal.
Moreover, school kids regularly visited the building for field trips. They moved freely and exuberantly through the building. They sat in the gallery. They noisily ate their lunches in the rotunda.
And yet, the "experts" would have us believe that by merely being in a building with armed security the children were in fact being tormented psychologically, having been given the message that the building was, to use the words of Warnick, et al, a "scary, dangerous and violent place." In reality, none of us who worked in the building daily cared anything at all about the presence of the guards. I certainly never hesitated to invite family members there.
It's a Matter of Priorities
For places like amusement parks, concert venues, city halls, county courthouses, state legislatures — and of course — the US capitol, security measures have already been implemented. Is there evidence that everyone working in these building regards them as "prisons"? After all, the private owners — people who are potentially liable for violence on their premises — want security, and you hear few of them resort to a knee-jerk declaration of "it won't work!" when their lawyers and stockholders advise them to implement security solutions.
Indeed, what we often hear as a objections to "security" are really just objections to the incompetence and unpleasantness of public schools. We're told that greater security at schools will encourage more abuse of student rights via random searches, drug tests, and aggressively unpleasant encounters with security personnel.
In other words, we're being warned that public-school security reflects the quality of public schools in general. If greater security automatically leads to abusive behavior by security, then why do we not see this behavior at the Magic Kingdom or at baseball stadium? The answer lies in how public schools function.
Those places that actually value the safety and quality-of-experience for the people present have a much different attitude about security than public schools do. And, no doubt, part of the reason that public schools and their supporters can continue to get away with their dismissive attitude toward real security is because no matter how many shooting take place on school property, the schools are never held legally accountable. It's much easier for the counties and the school boards to shrug and say "there's not enough money."
But why is the security experience at some non-school government facilities so much better than at public schools? The answer lies in the fact that schools simply aren't a public-policy priority. The grown-up lobbyists and politicians and other visitors who must visit a legislature will complain bitterly, and possibly even sue, if treated the way public-school children are treated. They also demand real security that they can see for themselves. Thus, meaningful yet unobtrusive measure are implemented — even if they are costly. The attitude for public schools is quite different. For them, the plan is to slap up a few security cameras or hire a tiny handful of ill-tempered, unprofessional security personnel poorly trained in dealing with students.
Those who oppose security will continue to claim it can't work. Outside the tiny echo-chamber of public-school thinking, though, practical security measures are already common and the results have been nothing like we associate with school security. Perhaps there's a reason why the public schools, and not theme parks, continue to be primary targets for homicidal maniacs.
- 1. But the study itself doesn't even really relate to the type of security being discussed in relation to school shootings. The study is mostly about internal security for day-to-day bullying, etc. But in relation to application of security, the study concludes: "In all of the models, there was a negative relationship between school environments that more aggressively and fairly enforced the rules and perceptions of fear."
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.