Swing for the Fence

Private schools today are sometimes concerned about losing an Open school environment or culture. This topic usually comes up when we discuss perimeter fencing or access control. They worry that the presence of security will make their campus feel fortified and closed-off thereby losing its free-flowing and previously welcoming nature. But is this really true?


Are security and openness mutually exclusive?


What is school culture, anyway, and what makes it open or closed?


School culture is often thought of as based on a school’s stated mission or founding principles, but a closer look tells us that it involves much more. It is an ever evolving condition based on physical and social phenomena. Socially, it is defined by variables that range from the written and unwritten school rules for behavior and communication, the quality of relationships amongst administrators, faculty, staff, students, parents and the community at large, linguistic and racial characteristics, beliefs and attitudes about the school, and the way the school fits into the world in general.


Physically the culture is influenced by the school aesthetic – what it physically looks like – urban or pastoral, on a hill or in a valley, its architecture and layout, even how it is painted. All this contributes to the perception and formation of culture. From all these contributing factors a personality or culture develops which identifies the school at a specific place and time.


What we find today is that school culture is changing, from within but also from influences from the world around us. Schools long cherished as “open” and “welcoming” no longer feel safe for many in the community. When administrators, teachers and parents are anxious, concerned or uncertain about campus security, the kids sense it. (You know they smell our fear.) And this cannot help but have a negative impact on learning and on the culture they live and learn in.


Let’s face it, there is no getting around the idea that a fence or access control check point appearing where, for years, there was none, modifies the visual profile of the school. People who have visited a campus for decades are now faced with having to navigate around a fence to an access control area. Some folks may pine for the “good old days” when this was not necessary. However, as we know, individuals also now have deep and reasonable concerns over the security of the students and staff. They may well be relieved that “finally, something is being done.” We find a wide spectrum of attitudes and beliefs when implementing new security elements at schools. While no one wants to build a prison, likewise no one wants their school to be vulnerable and easily accessible to an adversary.


So the key question is how does a school, faced with the need to add security to preserve a culture of safety and protection – do so without losing a culture of friendliness and ease?


Think of your own home. We want our friends, family and neighbors to always feel welcome. But that doesn’t mean we leave the doors unlocked. We install house alarms and cameras, secure windows and have deadbolts on our doors because we want, at the very least, to feel safer. Some people even live in ‘closed’ communities where there is added access control, a guard booth and an active security patrol. By virtue of being thus secured, are these communities really any less inviting (to those whom we want to invite in)?


Positive social culture evolves from shared experiences: at school, how we welcome each other at the start of the day. Supporting one another’s successes. Creating environments that bolster confidence and nurture creativity. Feeling secure to take risks. Learning about diversity through contact with others who are different from ourselves.


Physical barriers and fences are not equivalent to social, community or cultural barriers. Fences and access control measures are physical deterrents that only carry the value we choose to assign to them. A distinction must be made.


At Disneyland in recent years, security measures have been implemented that include metal detectors, secondary screening and bag checks. Visitors have accepted and even appreciate that their stay in the Magic Kingdom will be safer because of those security measures that include improved perimeter security. It is a key tool in preserving culture, not annihilating it. Although Disney has made changes to its security that are obvious to its visitors and even at times a bit inconvenient, is it not still, after all,  the happiest place on earth?

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