Searching for the truth of schoolhouse violence

By Nicole Safker (JD 12)

5Students do not “shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse door.” The Supreme Court handed down that oft-quoted maxim in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

However, in this post-Columbine and Virginia Tech world of metal detectors, random searches and police officers patrolling school grounds, balancing the privacy rights of students and the legitimate safety concerns of school administrators and parents has proven problematic. Often, students’ rights are curtailed or infringed upon, especially when it comes to the privacy of their person and their belongings.

“There has been a steady diminution of students’ rights over the years,” said UF Law Assistant Professor Jason Nance.

Nance, a former inner-city schoolteacher in Houston, joins other experts in the fields of sociology, criminology and education policy who argue that intrusive searches do not reduce violence and, in some cases, violence and disorder in schools actually increase.

Nance described his forthcoming paper slated for publication in the University of Colorado Law Review as a “legal, normative and empirical analysis” of random, suspicionless searches of students’ belongings. As part of this study, Nance draws conclusions from a restricted database published by the U.S. Department of Education. That database contains information reported by school officials across the country regarding incidents of school crime and school search practices.

Nance said that schools function best when administrators foster an “environment of trust,” and that conducting intrusive school searches of students and their belongings creates, instead, an environment of distrust that impedes the learning environment. In addition, such practices send students a negative message regarding their constitutional rights, or lack thereof, Nance said.

A troubling aspect of Nance’s research is his finding that among schools that report no incidents of school crime during the 2008-09 school year, intrusive searches are “much more likely to occur in those schools serving high minority populations, even after controlling for other salient factors.” Nance said. “Such practices perpetuate racial inequalities and condition minority students to accept intensive surveillance from government authorities.”

These disparate practices also convey harmful messages that white students are privileged and minorities should not be trusted, exacerbating racial tensions rather than promoting equality, Nance said.

Nance said school violence is better addressed by instituting programs that build school community, foster collective responsibility, and strengthen relationships between students, teachers and the community at large. This approach increases the ability of schools to reduce violence and, at the same time, enhances the educational environment.

Professor Sharon Rush, associate dean for faculty development at UF Law, praised Nance’s research for its depth and potential impact in the education field.

“I think it’d be very hard to look at his work if you’re an educator and not do something,” Rush said. “I think that what he’s doing with his ability to do this empirical research is bringing a stark reality to what many people intuitively do know – that there is a lot of racial inequality in our public schools.”