In a World Without Columbine: Security in Schools

This post is obviously from our point of view and may not reflect the school you grew up in or one currently teach in -obviously –   this is but one experience out of billions. 

We grew up  in the post-Columbine Colorado school system. We were in second grade when it happened,so we really don’t remember school or life before this. We do know the world after –  how much the fear and security escalated.

Children have been arrested for making a gun with their fingers, for pretending to have guns, and for even talking about guns in school. We’ve seen clear backpacks for sale – students can’t even have a backpack unless you can see everything in it. Some schools got rid of lockers. Many implemented school badges that actually have tracking devices in them. Doors were numbered, lock down drills were held. School surveillance increased, police officer presence doubled – more security was implemented.

We really don’t know a world without Columbine or its aftermath. So working in a middle school in another country has been a very unique, perhaps shocking experience to say the least.The whole system is different, but one of the biggest shocks has been security.

Let’s start on the outside of the school. There is a sort-of crossing guard that stands at the one crossing that doesn’t have a  signal. He doesn’t even stop cars, but reminds kids when it is safe or not safe to cross. From there, there is one man who has been referred to as the “School Grandfather” which I’m now wondering if they meant “groundskeeper” but Grandfather sounds far cooler. He is the closest thing we have to a security guard. He even introduced himself as a security guard. He wears a neon yellow vest that says “Happy School” on the back of it. Honestly, though, he mostly directs the staff cars in and out of the parking lot. I’ve seen him patrolling around in the halls once – but only on the staff floor. I’ve also seen him working with tools – which confirms my suspicions that he is more of a groundskeeper than anything else.

I asked Andrew about resource officers. Thinking about how strange it is that we always had police officers with full guns and tasers that worked in our schools every day. “Why?” he asked in disbelief.

“Uhh… I’m not sure. They were there to make sure the school was safe. And also maybe to make kids more comfortable around police? They can arrest kids – its easier to just have a police officer ready in the school to make an arrest or stop a shooter.”

Andrew was blown away that children can be and have been arrested. Kids cannot be, or are usually not arrested in Korea. If they break the law, it’s usually up to the parent. He also said that there are definitely no resource officers. A police officer might come every once and a while but mostly to hang out with the kids.

Korea has quite a bit of CCTV security cameras. Small mom and pop stores or restaurants have them, banks, some bus stops. They are everywhere. But to be honest I haven’t seen any in the school. Or at least not in the rooms – I know most schools in the United States are filled with security cameras but some schools have gone so far as to put a camera in every classroom. To be honest I don’t even think I’ve seen any in the halls but I’ll take a closer look.

So technical security measures are lacking. There are no security guards or “resource officers” surely the teachers do something? Nope.

The students do not change rooms, unlike our middle schools. The students belong to one room, 1-2, 1-5, 2-5, 3-3 for example (1st grade room 2, third grade room three, etc). It’s the teachers who change rooms and bring their own laptops and any other materials they have.

Just because students don’t change rooms doesn’t mean they just sit in the room – they have a full 10 minutes between classes. Far longer than I’ve ever had. Middle school I had 7 minutes to hike across the school and in high school I had 5 minutes. The middle school student here use their 10 minutes to run around in the halls, scream, play games, etc. I’ve looked into a room and saw two students playing king of the mountain, standing on top of the desks. The most popular game is wait for a few classmates to leave the room then barricade the doors. “haha you can’t come in!”is basically the game.  You can hear it – the screaming, the running, pounding. Slamming into doors and jumping around outside of the staff room.

The staff room – this is where we all sit for the 10 minutes. No one has to go out into the halls. In the United States, every teacher at our schools had to stand outside of their room to make sure the students weren’t going insane, dealing drugs or fighting in the halls. Here, no one ever goes outside during the passing period. It takes quite a bit of noise, screaming, or slamming before a teacher will nonchalantly go out in the hall to either scream “knock it off!” or to make sure the screaming isn’t a broken leg (which, coincidentally, happened a couple days ago to a second grade boy). If the noise is just awful, a few kids may be brought into the staff room for a severe lecturing.

This was absolutely insane to me the first time I saw it. The bell rang and we all just hung out, you could hear absolute chaos outside of the room. A student actually got pushed into our window (his face was pressed against it just staring into our room). No one cared. I couldn’t believe the teachers didn’t have to go out and monitor the passing period.

In fact, it gets more crazy. When I was a student, it was absolutely drilled in me that I had only 7 (later 5) minutes to get to my next class and god-help-you-you-better-not-be-late!

Here, I had 3 minutes until my first class started and I was grabbing my stuff. Students can’t be late, surely teachers should set an example, right? “Where are you going?” Andrew asked me, “you don’t have to be in the room until after the bell rings” I told him I wanted to go early, he made it pretty clear that I should just wait. Maybe wait so I’m not alone in my classroom, but I wonder if it is just to stay out of their ways. Let them be kids and don’t let your presence make them feel nervous or that they have to behave. I think we would all rather have them going insane unsupervised for 10 minutes and have them settled in class, than have antsy kids in class who had to control themselves for the 10 minute period.

So all of us teachers wait for the bell to ring – the kids run back to their classes and mess around a little while longer. We grab our things and walk slowly to our classrooms. Even after you enter the class they may continue to mess around until you’re all set up.

At lunch, we ignore them and they ignore us. In America, the teachers usually have to go out and monitor recess, but not here. When we are finished eating, we go back to our office to hang out. The kids can do whatever they want, wherever they want. They can play outside, they can hang out inside, they can play in the room.

In America we all had to be outside where they could see us. If it was raining hard enough we would all have to go inside with our teacher. I think I’ve even seen them wander into the elementary school playground – that is essentially leaving campus but no one cares.

The one true time I’ve seen teachers monitoring students is in the morning when they walk in and take their shoes off. I don’t even think they are monitoring but rather greeting the students and making sure the students put their slippers on. Because it was raining this morning, a few extra teachers were out to make sure students left their umbrellas in the buckets provided (each bucket was labeled per class). But there was also a teacher monitoring the other teachers to make sure we left our umbrellas in a designated area. It is a waxed tile floor and a couple drops of water are really the only security risk to anyone at this school.

The students all have little shoe cupboards, most don’t lock theirs – no one is going to steal shoes.  But a few students who bring $70+ soccer cleats (to play soccer during recess) lock theirs. Inside the classroom on the back wall are more cubbies, these hold personal belongings – again, usually not locked. When all the staff leaves the staff room we will lock the room. Its filled with 10+ laptops and countless personal effects of the teachers. Not a good room to leave unlocked. So this is really one of the only times we secure anything. A few rooms are off-limits to the kids, the teacher’s auditorium (for meetings), the library, the English classroom. They’re locked.

Another interesting thing: students can leave school with their homeroom teacher’s permission. At home, we need a permission slip from a parent and a teacher has absolutely no say. Here, if a student wants to leave campus they can give a reason why and the homeroom teacher will write them a pass. Interesting. I’m sure many a lawsuit would happen if a teacher ever did this at home.

The last interesting, and unexpected thing I’ve been seeing more and more recently that I know I’ve never seen in the United States is tools. More and more, I’ve seen students, usually boys, walking around with tools: a saw, a hammer. No big deal, just a kid with a large hammer, you know, whatever. Also, no one uses scissors here – everyone has exacto knives. Something I’m sure are banned in many schools in the US.

Please do not think these kids can do whatever they want just because of a lack of security or supervision. Only that they are given freedom where it is deserved – like when they are in the hallway or eating lunch.

Every morning, every afternoon, and often during lunch, certain kids line up in our office to be berated by their homeroom teachers. The teacher stands above them like a drill instructor, grabbing at their school uniforms, nitpicking the straightness of their ties or the length of hair. If a student cracks a smile or doesn’t take it seriously they might have to do squats or hold a plank. This morning a student got to stand with his face against a wall while his teacher stood yelling at him. This particular teacher is super nice, I’ve never seen him yell so it was shocking. But there was an added element of funny Korean that the teacher was brushing his teeth (you brush your teeth after every meal here) while he was yelling at the kid. Literally at the exact same time, yelling and brushing, brushing his tongue and yelling.

In the morning a few times there have been full spot-checks. Students had to pass a uniform and general inspection by their homeroom teacher before they could even enter their classroom for the day. No, these students certainly do not have free reign but they are allowed to have responsibilities that American students could never have  – like being in the hallway unsupervised or eating lunch at their own pace.

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