High School Safety in Northern Virginia

Here is a letter I wrote to the principal of my son’s high school:

Dear Principal _____,

Thank you for requesting feedback about the installation of interior cameras at the high school. I am against the use of cameras. I visited the school recently to pick up my son and it was like visiting a prison. A police car often sits outside the school and upon entry a security guard directs visitors to the main office where the visitor’s drivers license is scanned and information including date of birth is collected (is this information checked against other records and kept in a database for future reference? It’s unclear). The visitor is then photographed and issued a photo pass. I found the experience oppressive. Adding cameras will only add to the prison-like atmosphere. The response, of course, will be that these measures are necessary for “safety.” As with security measures at the airports I doubt that these measures increase actual safety, instead they are security theater, a play that we put on that looks like security but really is not.

Moreover, the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today. Overall youth mortality (ages 5-14) has fallen from 60 per 100,000 in 1950 to 13.1 per 100,000 today (CDC, Vital Statistics). Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before.

When we surround our students with security we are implicitly telling them that the world is dangerous; we are whispering in their ear, ‘be afraid, do not venture out, take no risks.’ When going to school requires police, security guards and cameras how can I encourage my child to travel to foreign countries, to seek new experiences, to meet people of different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds? When my child leaves school how will the atmosphere of fear that he has grown up in affect his view of the world and the choices he will make as a citizen in our democracy? School teaches more than words in books.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Tabarrok


Good for you. I especially like the "whispering in their ear" passage.

I trust that the Principal replied, recommending a semi-colon instead of a comma in " ... I doubt that these measures increase actual safety, instead they are security theatre ...".

Doubt it. From my experience, principals often don't have any better grasp of the material taught to their students than the average adult. They're often of administrative / business backgrounds.

Home school. Its less psychologically damaging for your kids, and better for their social well-being.

Great, so what's the message there? "If we send you out to school big, bad society will damage you"?

"Society" doesn't run schools. And the schools in the US are panopticons for children... not very good for learning.

Then move, get involved, do something.

My children (12 & 15) have attended public and private schools in multiple districts and, although i've certainly seen bad schools, our experiences have been uniformly very good to excellent.

Ironically, the private school was closest to being a panopticon.

"Then move, get involved, do something."

Or...they could simply stop screwing up. You don't have to go to the private school and don't have to pay for it. It's funny when liberals can't cross the street to get to a druggist who doesn't object to the morning after pill that someone who has a problem with school policy has to move their freaking home. What's funnier is people just accept this notion that you just move to get to go to an acceptable school even though the idea would be preposterous applied to any other service not supplied by government.

"...get involved, do something..."

School bureaucrats are not that stupid. They know that parents are "involved" only whilst their children attend school in the district. They wait you out, ask for another chance, form a committee, undertake a study, and then you're gone.

For some reason the problems endemic to K-12 education are less prevalent with food, clothing, housing, spouses, higher education, recreation and other necessities. If only there were a academic field devoted to figuring out why the disparity. If only.

"Then move, get involved, do something."

Home schooling doesn't count as doing something? Or do only activities paid for by tax dollars count?


As to the general point, Mr. Tabarrok is obviously right in his stats but that doesn't change the fact that, one, part of that security apparatus around children (notably in homes, kitchen and bathrooms) might be one of the reason for the drop in mortality rate in the 5 to 14 yo.

And two, while I am unclear as to how that relates to cameras, my bet is that the school is getting freaked out by recent schools' massacres. Pointing out that school massacres are, after all, relatively rare and a cost you're willing to pay in the abstract does not make the job of the director who has to make his school as secure as humanely possible any easier. I guess he could carry out a referendum for parents to decide?

Other than Newtown, what are these "recent schools’ massacres" you speak of?

And how do cameras prevent them? Answer is of course they don't. I just wonder what mental gymnastics and cognitive dissonance people use to make believe they would. I wonder if you even had a bullying incident whether they'd even let you look at the footage to determine who was at fault. I suspect that no, the cameras are simply their for administrative CYA.

OTOH, asides massacres what about the utility of cameras in preventing or improving response to other more mundane "bad stuff"?

Are you arguing that all camera monitoring is "security theater"? Why single out schools?

"Bad stuff" might be fights, theft, graffiti, medical emergencies, property damage, fires, intruders, etc.

Cameras prevent none of those directly. They work upon the incentives of people who might get punished after the fact. Many of the future inmates don't give a care.

And yes, I don't want government surveilling everything everywhere. So, I'm not singling out schools. Private entities can implement cameras and I can generally avoid them if I wish, though I'm less concerned that they will be able to abuse the power. All McDonald's wants to know is if my car is at the drive-in window yet.

If something does happen, it gives the administrator something to point to and say "look, we had cameras -- we did everything we could!"

At certain times in my childhood schooling I would have liked cameras. It would have lessened assault and vandalism, despite the fact I was in a very rich school district. In retrospect, there were much better ways of dealing with that problem, like getting rid of compulsory education.

Note how only with government does it become "cameras or no cameras" and we totally discount the observation that schools are a nightmare if we need cameras. Well 'we' don't.

I have some deer hunting cameras that are useful. And cameras in the school could be used to keep the school honest, such as dragging them kicking and screaming to punish bully rather than the victim. But of course I don't trust them to do that.

Properly used, cameras can prevent crime. In the case of schools, you would want cameras outside or in other likely staging areas, so that somebody monitoring those cameras can use them to react to the situation and dispatch personnel to appropriately deal with it.

That said, cameras are not preventative in and of themselves. They are only a tool that can be used once somebody has detected that a situation may be occurring. A security guard plopped in front of a bank of monitors and forced to watch them without a break will not see suspicious activity. However, a security guard tipped off to suspicious activity can use cameras to react accordingly.

I could not agree more. My high school routinely posted police cars outside the front office.

I wonder how much of that is really to protect the students from one another though. Hardly a week goes by without some kid being arrested at the local high school for knives, drugs, fights etc.

Often these things occur at or near school grounds just pre and post school times.

Again, cameras don't protect. They document and surveil. In order to protect the perpetrator has to worry about consequences.

Deterrence is the only objective? What about quick and effective response?

A 911 number doesn't protect by itself either and neither does a fire hydrant.

The cameras 'n cops 'n stuff, are not to protect the children against murderers, they are there to protect the principal/school/district against lawyers.

Same with the TSA airport BS, and the drones and stuff. They would not protect people against terrorists, they protect politicians from being blamed from the acts of terrorists.

This kind of things will continue to happen until society/politicians/lawyers agree to stop blaming the people in charge for not taking 'security' to ridiculous levels.

in the case of the TSA and most other "anti-terrorist" measures I think there are a couple of motivations that exert more influence than politician CYA. The first are the demands of our constantly-expanding surveillance state and it's social control agenda. The second one is corruption, graft, greed. Like the billions and billions of dollars generated for certain companies and their stockholders from the insane explosion in drug testing, there are fortunes to be wrung from the nation's pockets from all these expensive and futile "security measures" which -- of course -- must be constantly updated to foil Boris Badinof or Emmanuel Goldstein or whoever else is representing the forces of un-America.

Nice letter. I hope it does some good, but I find many people don't think rationally about this kind of thing.

The world is dangerous so why is it a bad thing to demonstrate to kids that they should take some steps to try and minimize those dangers? Do you make your kids where seatbelts in your car or helmets when they ride their bikes? Doesn't that implicitly tell kids cars and bikes are dangerous? Why do you lock your doors at night? Doesn't that teach your kids that nighttime is dangerous and that they should be afraid at night? This is silly. Today's kids have grown up with cameras. They take more videos and pictures of themselves in a year than I did in my whole childhood. Cameras are so much a part of their life that most won't even notice them. What are you sayin here, schools should let anyone walk right in off the street? That people shouldn't have to check in at the office? What? And by the way, when have schools not looked like prisons? When I walk into schools built in the 1940s or 1950s, they look more like prisons then they do now. Personally I don't have any problems with teaching kids that the world is dangerous but that you can't just sit and hide in your house. You have to drive to school but wear a seat belt. You have to let visitors into schools but see who they are first (would you let you children open the door to a knock at night without havin them look to see whose out there first). Teaching kids to take precautions so that they can go on living life is not a bad thing. It's the responsible thing to do.

"The world is dangerous so why is it a bad thing to demonstrate to kids that they should take some steps to try and minimize those dangers?"
Changing a school into a jail doesn't actually make it any safer/

"why is it a bad thing to demonstrate"

Because for $1000 you can get some expanded steel and a Glock 17 and training for a security guard and do something real instead of demonstrating 1984.

I don't know about others, but to me it's far more '1984' to have some dude who you know wasn't given an adequate background check lurking in the hallway with a holstered firearm than it is to have some security cameras, most of which won't be so much as glanced at.

Orwellian aspect aside, one of these scenarios has the possibility of ending in tragedy and the other doesn't. I'll take door #2, Monty.

Sorry, I should have been more clear: I'd take door #2 assuming I have to pick one. I'd rather neither be in my child's school, thank you very much.

That's not 1984, that is access security fail. Cameras don't do anything about that. Expanded metal does.

Right! You don't want some dude lurking in the hallway. It's the children that need to take their own security into their own hands.. They could all be little Wayne LaPierres. That would solve the problem!

And yet cops exist. Crazy.

Dead serious, in my preferred world, you'd get to make the choice without having to make the entire rest of the country do exactly what you wanted or you being forced to do what I wanted.

In fact, I'd even let your kid's school free ride on an air marshal model where noone outside the school and the parents would be informed where the security guards were or weren't.

Don't mess with Andrew's kid, he's the one whose packin'.

>>Because for $1000 you can get some expanded steel and a Glock 17 and training for a security guard

That actually costs a bit more than $1000, even ignoring labor costs. There's increase insurance and licensing, for example.

Okay, a Kel-Tec then. I'm flexible.

Btw, if you 'need' cameras you don't already have some kind of security guard? If you don't have a security guard do you 'need' cameras?

Andrew, don't be flexible. AK-47 or ef-it. This is not the time to back down. You 'need' the 'protection' that only an automatic weapon in the hands of a cop-school dropout can afford society.

Actually, I'd be fine with pepper spray.

@Andrew' - you don't want pepper spray, it's an aerosol, bad for the environment. Also, it's affected greatly by wind, you're more likely to spray yourself in the face or get some of the spray back at you as you try to spray it in the right direction. Also being an aerosol, it requires frequent testing to know if it's charged properly. Each test you stand the chance of spraying yourself again. After a few tests you need a new can. Also if you're close enough to use pepper spray, you are in the "danger zone" where your assailant is close enough to harm you as well. Your assailant may figure that he can stand the irritation of pepper spray for the 3 seconds it will take to smash your head through the concrete.

An AK-47 would be wholly inappropriate for CQB, unless they had the long entry-hall that I propose. In that case a .308 would be ideal, though likely unnecessary. In most cases, a 12 gauge, the same one that every patrol officer has, would suffice and be more than adequate. And I don't understand what you mean by "back down." If the question is 'what would you want to have if someone were coming at you with an AR-15, the answer is .308. If "Glock" the answer is .308. If hammer, the answer is .308. If the question is "what will CYA administrators let you have?" then pepper spray is fine, or maybe a government that was worth a damn could develop something reliable using those little pepper spray paintballs.


I understand, see comment above, but if your choice is "the teacher standing between wacko and your kid has (A) Pepper spray or (B) good vibes" the choice is easier.

Set safety aside cuz I am not sure cameras do anything but record things so they hardly make schools safer from horrific events but here is a real minor event where cameras are useful in schools. When I was in the 9th grade I was what you could call bullied. I was around 135lbs (I wrestled so I am quite sure about that weight) and this dude i would say about 200 pounds and 5-6 inches taller than me who thought he was a thug enjoyed picking on people. He took a liking to messing with me. In spite of the fact I wrestled I dont like fights. I tried avoiding him, I tried letting it go but he wouldnt. One morning he was up to his old tricks of getting in my face, calling me all kinds of things etc. and he started to shove me and pushed me into a locker where I hit my head on something and that freakin hurt. I got pissed and blasted probably the best double leg take down I ever shot and launched the dude and knocked the wind out of him. I then hit him as hard as I could about 3 times in the face and broke his nose. We both get suspended and the dudes parents sue my parents for damages. Ended up going no where but I still was suspended. If a camera would have been in the hallway, not only would I have not gotten suspended and my parents not got sued, It may not have even happened because his bullying would have shown up day one. Point is cameras in schools could do a lot even if they do nothing for shootings.

RAstudent, thanks for bringing up the bullying issue.

I'm sure Alex is convinced that cameras are useless to deal with bullying. Is the same Alex who wrote this a month ago? http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/01/uncovering-union-violence.html

If the union ran the camera system...

Of course, you have to kind of believe that schools wink at bullying like I do to understand my point. See above where I say that the cameras might keep the school honest if we could get access to the footage. But I doubt that would be the case.

RA gives an example similar to what I lived many times. I was kicked off the bus in elementary school because my best friend pretended to slap me. The school punishes the bully and victim equally, and since the victim has something to lose and the bully on net doesn't care, the victim is doubly punished. It used to piss me off and confuse me until I came to believe that bullies are a system of control tolerated by the school system. Will cameras be used to punish the bully more, or will they simply be used to reinforce business as usual?

Here is why I come to the opposite speculative conclusion: schools know who the bullies are. They don't need cameras to side with the victims. They don't now. Maybe we could get hold of the footage and force schools to behave, but I have doubts.

since we don't know the reasons to place the cameras, all we can do is speculate on the reasons for the installation of them......

Well, then it is "no" until good reason is given. If Alex doesn't know, then why assume anyone knows? About 99% of the time, they don't even know, so that's pretty safe to assume. In fact, I suspect their request for feedback is to harvest some justification from the more paranoid parents.

Sounds like a great character-building experience. You both gained street smarts. I'm sure the nose healed and your head stopped freaking hurting. The prevention of all violence is unhealthy IMHO.

Now, if you had been unable to defend yourself that would be a travesty worth preventing.

It was a character building experience, no doubt. None the less, what if he had landed wrong and broke his neck or if he hit his head and died? That has happened before, probably many times. Further, I am not sure I would want my children to have to go through such an experience at school, character building or otherwise.

"what if he had landed wrong and broke his neck"

I would have pulled out my tiny little violin and played it all night long.

I have no problem with completely asymmetric outcomes such as the one you describe.

I am truly amazed that Alex objected to this. Freedom sometimes means freedom from a potential crazy.

What do you mean? What crazy? Why are you amazed? What does constant surveillance have to do with freedom, even some hypothetical risk, if that risk is not realistic?

I actually agree with Alex; a rarity, but there it is.

The cameras are pure theater, and I agree completely that it sends the wrong message to the kids.

I spent the entire sixth grade being terrorized by a crazy classmate. The teacher and school were aware. We talked with the teacher constantly about it. They never did anything until in a moment of weakness I squirted the kid with water from a syringe from a science project. Then I got in trouble and it gave the school justification to treat us "even-handedly" which is to say that I got punished far more heavily because the other kid didn't care. If they had cameras would this situation have been different? Nothing indicates that at all.

I am not so sure about that. As they say in football, the tape dont lie. If they treated you unfairly, its documented and you could fight the punishment and likely win.

Andrew, you probably should have sprayed him with acid, at least. The only answer to violence is violence.

I'm not making it that way, you daft clown. The school system is. I have no idea how to get that into your brain.

" If they treated you unfairly, its documented and you could fight the punishment and likely win."

I know people don't know. The areas people don't know is my specialty. But the school was acutely aware. I'd have to take it to the news or something. So again, it is possible that film could keep the school honest, but I don't trust them to do that.


Apparently you think the effective response to a bully is pacifism. What elementary school are you in?

And what do you think the large adults and/or cops do when they come to handle the bully, if they ever do anything about the bully?

Can I get some real commenters in here, please?

helmets when they ride their bikes

Helmets seem another bit of theater, and one that backfires because lots of people don't ride bikes if they have to wear helmets: http://news.health.com/2012/10/01/bike-helmet-laws/

I can't find it now, but someone claimed you are more likely to suffer a head injury in the shower than on a bicycle. Do people wear shower helmets?

Hahaha, the only problem with this claim is that near 100% of people showers while a minority rides a bike. Once you ride a bike you are in the set of "people who ride a bike" and you have to recalculate the probability of head injury for the smaller set.

"100% of people shower"

If only.

There's an ideological disconnect here. It's quite likely that those in favor of security cameras are also well-disposed to helmets on bicyclists, anti-gun and often advise us to emulate European ideas like nationalized health care and a welfare state. Most European cyclists never wear helmets.

Seatbelts, yes. Helmets, no. At least not after they've learned to balance themselves on the bike. There's very little evidence that helmets do make a difference, especially since the range of accidents in which a helmet makes a difference is quite limited. Most people don't just fall off their bikes when they're cycling in an urban environment. The real danger comes from cars, and if you get run over, your helmet won't really help you. I'm more concerned, as some research shows, that drivers will be less careful around cyclists wearing helmets because they'll think they're better protected.

I would in fact be very concerned if the whole 'everyone should wear a helmet' thing were to catch on and it became frowned upon for parents to let their kids ride around with a helmet (as, by the way, we all did when we were kids). Based on data from countries with mandatory helmet laws, they cause a significant decrease in ridership, which is very bad for cyclists because there is safety in numbers. Cyclists are safest when there's so many of them that drivers always check that they're not going to clip one when they change direction.

So, you're right: helmets do tell children and other people that cycling IS a dangerous activity, when it's in fact quite safe compared to other sports and has benefits that massively outweigh the risks.

FYI, at my high school in Northern Virginia (late 90's), all doors were unlocked and we were free to come and go as we pleased. Then my senior year a perv walked into the school and into the girl's bathroom and creeped out some people so they locked all the doors except the one near the main office. We could still get out, but someone had to let us back in. That seemed to work just fine. Of course, nothing is going to prevent someone with a machine gun from getting into a school.

"nothing is going to prevent someone with a machine gun from getting into a school."

Expanded metal. $1000. He'll need a shaped charge. Then he'll get shot immediately.

Or we can keep pretending it is impossible to defend a school while at the same time having four security guards and expanded metal to protect government buildings and federal courthouses and billions of dollars for airport security. When did we forget air travel was an adventure? Nevermind. What are we doing here people?

Andrew, please follow up. You've only responded twice to this comment.

Hey, are you the daft clown that claimed The Feds weren't threatening us with assault rifles? If so, now that I presented proof that even that daft clown can't ignore, then what the fuck is up?

I think you mean assault rifles. Unless people are actually afraid of the government's barrel shrouds, bayonet lugs, and pistol grips.

Yes, because it's not as if classrooms typically have large windows.

I don't understand why 'we' must do *anything* in response to outlier events. This is the TSA argument all over again.

We don't have to. I'm just proposing to do real things rather than fake things.

And double prime above can suck my ass.

I'm not that person. I'd post as "myself," whatever that means w.r.t an anonymous moniker.

The principal should agree to take out the cameras, on the condition that Mr Tabarrok is made personally responsible of all harm that may occur to any student in the school.

Would he sign that? Or is he just an annoying poseur? Yes it's a rhetorical question.

Interesting proposition.

Now that the cameras are in place is the principal "personally responsible of all harm that may occur to any student in the school."?

Rahul is spot on. They don't do these things in order to take responsibility, they do them in order to shirk responsibility.

Not so much shrinking responsibility but covering his tail. The principal should not be responsible for a wacko that decides to shoot up a school, but explain that to the parents and lawyers trying to profit from dead bodies..

How much of that harm would actually be prevented by having cameras? I detect a straw man here.

If you do a cost/benefit analysis, is the tiny chance of preventing harm worth the cost (and I don't just mean monetary) cost of having the place be monitored in that way?

First, what harm could be prevented? Maybe some high school shenanigans. Maybe a few stolen I-pods. Maybe less talking on cell phones in the hall.

The school wants cameras. They can get it over by playing the security card. They ask for feedback because they are even too much pussies just to do it.

The people that want cameras in the schools are the people selling and installing them.

Yep. The same way that that the people braying for armed guards at schools are lobbyists for the gun manufacturers.

What about the gym teacher at a middle school in centreville, va that was accused of sexually abusing a student yet it turned out that she lied. With a camera he wouldnt have had to have his name trampled, been put on admin leave, and i believe not rehired.

What about special education teachers that repeatedly are put in situations (due to extreme behavior issues of their students) where its the students word vs the teachers (without any real proof).

Another use would be performance based pay for teachers. When you base teacher pay on performance, there is much cheating that results (i believe the first freakonomics books used chicago public schools to raise this issue). If you were to record the test administration and the hand off of the results to an third-party, it would have to be much harder to cheat. For that matter, evaluating teachers would be much improved with being able to watch tape (just like in the nfl).

To me, the only question is how much would it cost. Other than that, there is simply way more benefits than problems with this.

Suppose you were in favor of raising a speed limit from 30mph to 31mph. They agreed to do it if you took responsibility for every accident that happened on that street. Is that fair?

Oh my, how we willingly submit to the authoritarian impulse.

Not to mention, it's just security theater. Maybe they'd get good photos after the fact of something we'd actually care about. I could breach that in 30 seconds, and I haven't fantasized about it for 6 hours a day...at least since high school.

Ah, you bring up the security theater. What is a snarkily mildly insulting name for the people who do surface things for appearance at the expense of actually accomplishing the goal? e.g. "we need to make sure the little guy has confidence in the stock market."


It's a good start. Maybe something with a little more contempt.


That used to be a compliment.

| "The main function of the public school is not education but social control. Using schools as institutions for social control makes them de facto criminal-psychiatric facilities, depriving children of liberty. Schools are prisons, to which children are sentenced by compulsory education and truancy laws." -- Dr. Thomas Szasz |

Were you carrying heat as recommended by the NRA?

That would be illegal, Bill. Any more legal issues I can help you with today?

I'm sure the NRA would favor a change in the law, if it were.

Of course they would.

I thought they wanted the prison guards to carry heat...oops...I mean teachers.

Actually, anyone qualified should be able to carry. But, you have to sugar coat things politically.

But for some reason people seem to accept 1 cop per 1000 citizens riding around giving chicken shit tickets, but somehow one cop per 1000 students concentrated inside a building is a bridge too far.

Okay, we can come up with ideas to accommodate such irrationality, such as let the teachers who we trust to die for our kids to live for our kids and protect our kids. That doesn't mean it's the first best.

Is there a particular reason most concealed carry permit holders are allowed to carry weapons, but a teacher is not?

'I am against the use of cameras.'

Well, in my day, it was just assistant principals using walkie talkies patrolling the grounds, police cars in the parking lot and along Pickett (burn out prevention - including taking pictures of license plates), and of course, the need for any visitor to register. And undercover police, plus the occasional sweeps through the 236 eating establishments.

Nobody needed to whisper anything in our ears - but then, we did have our eyes open. And we are now the age of the people making money off these things, and demanding them for our children. Or not, as the case may be - of an easily ignored minority, many who don't seem to have noticed how this has been going for decades until something makes it stand out in relief. Cameras being used to check comings and goings in school aren't new, at least to me. After all, some of those drivers were acting dangerously. thus justifying the need.

This isn't new - this started back in the Reagan Revolution, when it is was morning for the prowling bear, and the drug war took on its ferocious nature, including seizing property without due process. Not to mention a first lady who was all about saying no - and astrology. And the attempt to ensure FBI access to library records, the surveillance of pacifist nuns, a couple of secret wars, the deep, deep fear of terrorism....

Why, nostalgia just isn't what it used to be - the more things stay the same, the more people think they've changed.

I like how you managed to fit astrology in there! Good work.

With Nancy Reagan? Her belief in just saying no and astrology are examples of faith based initiatives (if biographical sources are to be trusted, her belief in astrology did influence Reagan), though that name came along later.

Really, isn't that just common knowledge to anyone who lived back then, like the fear of terrorism and secret wars?

I'm not questioning Nancy Reagan's use of astrology. I'm noting that you worked that into a post that has absolutely nothing to do with Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, the 1980's, etc. It is not even a post about conservatism, really.

It would be more constructive for all if you stayed on topic. And it might be possible to convey your ideas in a way that would be more likely to convince those with whom you disagree.

I went to a Fairfax County high school in the very late 1970s and very early 1980s. We had police on the grounds and in the parking lot (and undercover, but really, that was just such a joke it wasn't repeated), assistant principals patrolled the grounds with walkie talkies (one used to favor binoculars on the roof, by the way), cameras were used to record license plates, and all visitors had to register.

The time I am describing in a Fairfax County high just down the road from GMU was also the beginning of the Reagan era, with its secret wars and extreme fear of terrorism, and the beginning of the era of fear concerning missing kids. There is nothing new about anything being described in this post, except the degree of technology - visitor names were recorded by hand, for example, and the 'badges' were slips of paper.

I wonder how many people commenting here have personal experience of Fairfax County high schools at any time in the last 4 decades? Because most of those uninformed commenters would be unaware that nothing Prof. Tabarrok is describing is new in anything but detail.


The generation that grew up this way is now in their late 40s and early 50s - and they are the ones pretty much in charge.

The horse left the Fairfax County barn by the early 80s.


Read my post above. I am totally unfamiliar with anything you describe. I did go to Jefferson, so maybe we were afforded special freedoms, I don't know. Certainly the ability to leave campus and come back would not have been allowed at other high schools.

I went to WT Woodson - Bob's Big Boy and Roy Rogers were right across 236/Little River Turnpike/Main Street/Duke Street/etc.

Of course no one was allowed to leave school grounds - though many did, during lunch. Which is why there were 'sweeps,' of course. But it was a touch interesting jurisdictionally - those places were in Fairfax City, not Fairfax County.

Ah, I did read your comment - multiple years separate my experiences from yours, mine being from the late 70s/early 80s.

So long ago, the cameras that were used to photograph the license plates of student vehicles actually used film.

+1 for Panopticon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon The only think I lerned in publik skools bak in the days was how to fist fight.

I've considered that design for a school. Having humans watch is fundamentally different from cameras.

For a daycare, specifically. As kids grow up they either earn additional freedom or earn segregation into the more prison-like areas of the school. Pretending schools aren't like prisons is what is making us keep the good kids in prisons.

Too Easy. All you have to do is sign this contract with the school. "In exchange for not installing cameras, I hereby agree to indemnify the school against any and all damages resulting from any lawsuit which are attributable to the lack of cameras. Attached please find legal insurance policy with the wherewithal to make such payments, regardless of size."

But no one's going to do that, are they? School officials wants safety from absurd liabilities - don't we all. If you think the risk is tiny, then you, or at least someone, would be willing to do this. But no one is. It's like a bet - putting your money where your mouth is, and no one will, because of fear of litigation.

So, is the problem the cameras, or the cover-my-ass reason for the cameras?

I'll sign, even though I know that they would then use the "hey, we could have done what we were liable to do even before cameras but we couldn't because cameras were invented and you didn't want cameras."

Yes, I know they would try to put everything onto me, and I'd still accept the price of their douchebaggery CYA.

If an insurance carrier could write a policy covering every public school in the country for an attack by a deranged individual with firearms, how much do you suppose the premium would be per student?

It's over the top and discriminating. MS serves as a nice example"

Alex doubts cameras increase actual safety. The school apparently believes they increase it. Has there ever been a real study of the effectiveness of cameras for deterring violence, or at least their utility in finding those responsible after the fact? Lots of assertions and insinuations here.

I do think that Alex's reference to child mortality trends is meaningless unless he can link it to school-related deaths. Motor vehicle mortality is the one metric I can think of that has definitely made an impact on this overall figure and that has nothing to do with schools. Did a lot of kids used to die at school?

'Has there ever been a real study of the effectiveness of cameras for deterring violence, or at least their utility in finding those responsible after the fact?'

Well, for things like bombing train stations, there is some evidence - if catching those that placed the bombs is considered evidence. Though admittedly, making train station lockers blast proof also played a definite role in reducing that style of terrorism. (Though what they do at Centraal Station in Amsterdam is so over the top - including needing a card, as cash is most definitely not accepted - that I'm not sure that it is just about bombs when storing luggage there.)

It doesn't always work, though - in the recent bombing attempt in Bonn, the cameras did not deliver any useful evidence.

An excerpt -

'The German Federal Police, who are responsible for security in trains and stations, want to use far more electronic eyes, and they cite Britain as a model to follow. Extensive recorded video surveillance tapes enabled authorities there to identify the perpetrators in the July 2005 London bus and subway bombings within six days. In 2006, it took German authorities using video surveillance images taken at the Cologne train station three weeks to track down two would-be bombers.

Images Are Only Recorded at Major Stations -- Not Bonn

Deutsche Bahn and the federal police blame each other for the fact that nothing was recorded at Bonn station. The police claim that Deutsche Bahn didn't want to pay for additional cameras and comprehensive surveillance. Deutsche Bahn argues that it is the federal police who decide which images have to be recorded.' http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/bonn-bomb-triggers-calls-for-greater-use-of-cctv-surveillance-in-germany-a-873185.html

1. I'd speculate there are no studies. You are opening a can of worms with this study fixation.
2. Of course they are mostly for show. That is why dummy cameras exist.
3. He's right about it.
4. And that's not his point anyway, his point is that the miniscule benefit is not worth the cost.

On second thought, maybe we can put an end to this epidemic of high school locker bombings!

Come on people.

In my Fairfax County high school, the toilets were what tended to be 'bombed' back then. To the tune of multiple thousands of dollars of damage, and at least one cancelled school day due to the fire department shutting the school down (partially due to a tradition of seniors simply throwing everything out of their lockers at the end of their school career). No convictions that I was aware of, though - or camera, of course.

And remember - the Fairfax County school system has a decades long reputation as one of the best systems in the nation.

Okay. So what? And you are proposing cameras on the toilets?

'So what?'

Well, since this is getting into the territory of the absurd, we started discussing the idea whether cameras are effective when tracking people explosives in public places, with referenced information that actually, cameras are effective.

Then, when in response to this information, a joking reference is made to bombing lockers, I actually point to personal experiences in a Fairfax County high school (why yes, I am staying on topic - this post is talking about a Fairfax County high school, after all, and its security measures) concerning property destruction through the use of what where then considered 'firecrackers' of the almost mythical cherry bomb /M80 variety in a high school, the answer is 'so what?'

As for where the school would have placed the cameras - pointing down the hallway in both directions of course. The school already had a database of student pictures - it was called the 'yearbook' back then. Use the time stamp, and then deal with the people. In that special Woodson way, of course.

This being Woodson, not some school where the sort of people some commenters like to rail about - so when four people of personal acquaintance did $20,000 dollars (unadjusted dollars, and well past the level of felony charges, let us note) worth of physical property damage to the school a couple of months before graduation, no charges were brought - their parents paid promptly for the damage to be repaired. No one was about zero tolerance back then, at least for people accepted to fine universities (it would have dropped the school's college acceptance rate to something horrifying, like 95.8% or such) - wouldn't want to ruin anyone's future through a youthful prank, after all.

A quick correction for clarity - 'tracking people placing explosives'

No, we started discussing cameras in schools. You brought up explosives at train stations and then took it to M80s in bathrooms.

But how can you talk about a miniscule benefit to high cost ratio? You don't know what the benefit is, or isn't, without having some evidence.

"Of course they are mostly for show." But is it for show if they were to be proven to definitely deter violence? You bring up dummy cameras. What if these are just dummy cameras in the schools? They couldn't tell anyone that, of course. In that case, nobody's privacy is actually being violated, yet people likely still suffer the extreme mental anguish that accompanies being watched like that. The deterrent effect would still exist.

What evidence? Since when do you guys...excuse me...those guys require there to be any evidence. They are in fact asking for opinion-based feedback. They don't care about evidence. There must be some proposed benefit before there can be a theoretical or empirical evaluation. I don't require empirics to have a theoretical model.

I don't want dummy cameras in schools. I simply point out that the existence of dummy cameras indicates that a benefit of the camera is simply letting people think they are being watched. As Alex points out, in a school full of mostly good kids, this may be a cost rather than a benefit.

You are agreeing that cameras work.

Thank you. I do not fear for my children in their schools. I worry they will fear needlessly and that fear will limit their possibilities.

Second paragraph made me question causation. Might the word "Yet" be accurately replaced with the phrase "And it's all because?"

"Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before."

Any chance it's partly because we hide in our gated communites, homes and schools as never before?

Maybe some of the drop is childhood deaths has something to do with kids (latch key or not) staring at their screen of choice at home or shambling around under the flight path of their helicopter parents.

I don't disagree with the "security theater" point at all. And I'm drawn to the romance of "free range kids" parenting. But I do wonder if the helicopter parents get denied a little bit of credit for keeping their kids safe as they stunt them in other ways.

Clearly, the parents should have informed votes on a variety of safety measures. It should not be up to the school, or one parent, to decide on trade-offs between safety and scaring/psychologically inhibiting children. Perhaps the best solution is to create two schools in each district, one that is safe and one that doesn't remind us of prison. But, then you would have to split each of those schools into two schools, one that teaches evolution and one that doesn't. Then, obviously the benefits of homework are debatable, so we need eight schools. And it continues.......

Sounds like consumers have a very wide variety of wants and needs with respect to schools.
Can anyone think of a system that would cater to 'individual' needs, and not just averages?


>the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today.... Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before.

Alex, you really need to Google Fox Butterfield, and learn why he is famous. You do not want to become that man.

Clever, but he's talking about an additional non-security measure. Children didn't become safer over the last 100 years anticipating cameras one day.

Well said Alex.

Is it really necessary to send your son to prison 180 days a year, Mr. Tabarrok?

this father of three agrees with you, AT

Get over it. Cameras are everywhere whether used as security or just the general population watching each other for entertainment. It's a world of constant surveillance.

Or, don't get over it.

I'm a little surprised to see your thoughts on airport security:

"As with security measures at the airports I doubt that these measures increase actual safety, instead they are security theater"

I normally dismiss TSA bashing from others, but I respect your thoughts more than most others, and I would be interested to hear more of them on this matter. Surely without any airport security getting a bomb on to a plane would be easy, and there are more than few people who have that goal. Do you agree with that statement or is even that too much security?

TC-type one sentence answer: check in luggage (check in luggage never checked--so carry on luggage checks are mainly theatre and to stop the occasional nut with a carry-on, having lemons wrapped in aluminum foil, who purports to have a bomb).

Shoe bomber. I normally dismiss TSA apologists. But I'll make an exception. And please don't come back with "well, now we make everyone take off their shoes!"

I'm not sure I follow your point. The (would-be) shoe bomber was stopped by fellow passengers, not by TSA. Was that your point?

The point is they didn't prevent the bomb getting on the plane. That he was such a lame terrorist is evidence of the actual threat level. That they confiscate thousands of guns and there were and are zero hijack attempts indicates they have not prevented any non-events and haven't prevented the actual attempts. The FBI is fomenting and entrapping government-created terrorist cells. I'm not sure what other points need to be made. I guess it is possible for even the lame terrorists we have to be stupid enough to be caught by the TSA, but that certainly isn't the reality today.

I'd be delighted if my children's high school had such a security system.

Thank you Alex,

I'm also very thankful that I didn't have to be schooled in such a paranoia-driven atmosphere.

It's sickens me to think that there are people pushing for more and more of this, especially since they are often the same people who are going on about wanting the government out of our business.

Great letter Alex, kudos!

I always carry a camera and take a picture of anyone that irritates or even interests me, save it in a data base with information on the time and location, all cross-referenced, and attempt to identify the subjects. Is that wierd behavior on a personal level but normal for a government agency?

Well......if we are going to install cameras in the schools let's put them in the classrooms where we can record, review and assess what is going on on the classrooms? Parents and other "educators" could observe in real time providing feedback to the teachers and administrators to provide a better education for my kids......


Also have live feeds (recorded) in all police cars, documenting every police interaction.

Cameras don't bother me when they are used to monitor agents of the state, like teachers in public schools, police, legislators, etc.

One drawback of C-SPAN is that its cameras are not present at all "negotiations" over budgets and other legislation.

"Moreover, the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today.... Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before."

I think maybe you're overlooking some cause and effect here.

I agree with what Alex says but I find this idea of avoiding cameras somewhat amusing. I assume many people will opt to record their environments as the technology becomes available. So the question is not where will we have cameras but rather where won't we have cameras. Some people seem to be saying this problem only exists because these schools are public. My take is the liability issue for private schools is even greater. It wouldn't surprise me if private schools students are under extensive surveillance already.

The low youth mortality figures are nice and all, but the goal behind installing security cameras might be to reduce other threats to students, not just mortal ones.

I don't like being recorded on cameras either, but I doubt I could convince anyone of anything with what you have written here.

Come on, Alex -- you must be able to come up with a better argument than that.

I would post this to Reddit, but they'd probably like it more if you Alex could print out the physical letter, scan it or take a photo, then post that. This would probably make the front page.

I took my kids to our local prison for violent Juvenal offenders to go see a dog training program some of the inmates participate in to see about adopting one of those dogs.

The process at this high school sounds worse than the process we had to go though to get into the prison. We did have to go through metal detector and we were escorted to and from the dog training area. But everyone was really nice and we understood why they wanted to make sure we weren't bringing contraband into this setting. But a high school??

Removing the risk of anything going wrong _always_ ends in absurd results.

Perfect. Well done. As a former public school teacher as well as one who has worked in the private school sector and eventually left the field due to general disgust of the education system as well as being burned out about ten years ago, I am now shocked to see the spectre of school police right down the street from my home in Albuquerque at the local high school every day and know that my property tax dollars are wasted on this utterly useless theater of the absurd.

A long time ago in a place far far away, I was in the sixth grade and about to graduate from elementary school. The (superb) teacher asked the class if they wanted to do anything special for graduation. We students discussed this and decided that we wanted to have a bring your guns to school day. And so it came to pass that one day we boys (and girls) brought our bb and air guns to school for a very interesting show and tell. We have obviously made a lot of progress since those ancient times (reverse progress that is).

Have fun kids, its your world now.

I'm not sure what youth mortality has to do with anything here. Fewer kids are dying because of other health actions that have nothing to do with schooling. Just based on an incomplete knowledge of what school was like in the 1950s versus today, I'd venture to guess that the average school (especially those in the D.C. area) are much more dangerous today than they were in that era.

Security theater - indeed.

At our local, small, community private school... the school where kids open the door for me and call their teachers "sir", and "ma'am"... where the kids say "please", and "thank you"... we are installing locked doors, a security vestibule, increased student monitoring, and keypad entry.

For what? To make helicopter parents more secure.

The odds any one school is targetted is less than 1:60,000 if just random... the odds that a small private middle school in rural American happens to be unlucky - even far lower.

My hard-earned money should pay our amazing teachers - not some security expert that sells us expensive crap.

I'm just taking a shot in the dark here, so forgive me if I miss the target.

If they are collecting personally identifying information, they are probably subject to the Privacy Act. They need to be in compliance with all of the procedures of that act.

If the federal law doesn't apply, there is typically a state analog.

After watching security video of that rogue ex cop, I began to look around my work and home for security cameras. They were everywhere. Hardly a piece of dead space. Big Brother is alive and doing well. I'm not concerned myself about being watched in public places. Frankly, I think that what is in view of the general public is a public good. Cameras and recording devices are just like eyes and brains, except they don't lie on the witness stand.

Where does your kid go? I'm TJHSST '97 baby!

Because they get sued if they don't overbuild the security infrastructure.

Newtown survivor’s $100M suit

Has Threat of Lawsuits changed our schools?

No one is interested in efficacious solutions to problems in public school land. They are only interested in applying window dressing to cover their liabilities.

School is indeed a prison environment for social control that masquerades as an educational system. (Just like your mobile is a tracking device that also makes phone calls)

Beyond getting the youth acclimated to the Panopticon Paradigm, now any youthful indiscretion is handled by the legal system directly with in-house PD's instead of detentions and other such school punishments that we had as children. This results in some children getting a record even before they become adults, which can haunt them for many years after they leave school.

I also find it frustrating as a taxpayer that administrators are perennially whining about no money for books or having to use toilet paper to write essays upon--and yet the districts can always find tens of thousands of dollars to purchase security theater apparatus that provides nothing but a retrospective view of incidents after they occur. (Or live through a browser, but still equally useless at preventing mass homicides)

Don't expect your letter to have any impact on security policy Alex. If the children are terrified they make much better subjects--and the school has done its important work. .

I couldn't agree with this more. When I was in middle school, a high school in our school district was the target of a shooting, and it was terrifying and confusing to be bused home in the middle of the day amongst sobbing adults with no real explanation until my parents got home.

But it wasn't until I had to walk past the armed police officers to get to class or ring the doorbell to get back into the building after going outside for gym that I was truly scared. A that point I came to the childish understanding that what happened at Columbine could and probably would happen to me.

The world can be scary, but no one seems to factor in the psychological risks of fear itself.

I am completely for having security cameras in schools. I am a teacher, and a student falsely accused me of shoving him during a conversation in an empty hallway (he did this in retaliation to a discipline measure I administered). It would have been his word against mine and likely wouldn't have ended up with me in trouble, but the security camera footage stopped this from escalating into any sort of hassle.

Kids and adults can be truly malicious when it comes to situations like these and worse. If one is falsely accused of something as serious as sexual assault, a camera could be an absolute defense against an ordeal.

However, I agree that the "checkpoint" you had to go through at the front office is, as you describe, oppressive.

I totally agree. "You already have really oppressive security so let's not put discreet cameras in" is not a great argument. Maybe they could substitute existing security measures with cameras. I know this would require someone to accept that a sub-optimal decision was made, but surely the principal can find some teacher to blame.

"Moreover, the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today. Overall youth mortality (ages 5-14) has fallen from 60 per 100,000 in 1950 to 13.1 per 100,000 today (CDC, Vital Statistics). Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before."
Fair enough, but it doesn't mean that children should not be protected (even more so if a specific cause of death, school-related attacks, has become more common). It is like saying life expectancy rose since the 50s, so people should forget vaccination and never think about AIDS.

Do we know that school-related attacks are in fact more common (attacks per school, or casualties per student) than they were 20 years ago?

Look at the VA Tech Panel on school shootings from 1966-1997. The number of incidents in which an elementary school student was killed by gunfire in that period: 5. Three in 1988-89.

High schools and middle-schools are more problematic, but I don't see how asking for a driver's license is going to make people safer. Lanza got a driver's license in 2010. Does anyone seriously believe that if the office staff had asked him for his DL, the massacre would not have occurred?

If it were limited to cameras in the classroom I might be for it. It would make attracting good males to the teaching profession a bit easier, less lessons would be lost to extreme behavioural problems and teachers would always/more often be well prepared for the class they are about to deliver.

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