Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Focus on Who Than What

Recently administrators at a high school where I live fell into the same trap that makes Homeland Security so inefficient and infuriating.  They focused on too much on “what” instead of “who.”

An honors student and rising Eagle Scout served a 10-day suspension from school after his Boy Scout Camp Knife was spotted in his vacant car during a routine but random search of the school parking lot by dogs trained to detect drugs.

To their credit the administrators used discretion to reduce the punishment from what it could have been.  But even though the student will be able to make up for the missed time, there may be at least two serious unintended consequences.

It may have a dramatic impact on his grades and possibly his choice of colleges; but just as significantly it has been perceived as unjust by other students and  undermined the credibility of the system in the minds of those it is designed to protect.

The problem is the same one faced by the Federal Transportation Security Administration with its incredibly expensive zero tolerance focus on “what” instead of “who.”

TSA is symbolic of America’s obsession with “appearing” fair instead of “being” fair, appearing competent instead of actually being competent, appearing effective rather than actually being effective.  As studies have made clear with student achievement, the time spent “appearing” takes away from actually “being.”

While subjecting everyone to an intrusive process that requires little judgment or thought and perpetuates a culture of CYA, analysis shows that our approach to security shows little sign of increasing actual security.

In the words of Rafi Ron, an Israeli consultant to TSA:

“the key is not searching for dangerous items, but rather for dangerous people”

This isn’t the gross, blunt identification that stigmatized the word “profiling” when misused by traffic cops or some district attorneys.

Apparently TSA has gotten the message and now deploys 2,800 highly trained behavior detection officers at airports around the country.

Shifting to that approach while loosening the hugely expensive and intrusive approaches currently used would not only amount to only a fraction of the cost but be far more effective.  Instead of bogging down the entire system with a 100% check, it would involve interviewing 1% of passengers.

It would free up the two-thirds trillion dollars the current lock-down approach has cost and annually restore the $27 billion in travel spending stifled by the system each year.

However, to apply this behavioral detection approach to security in our local schools, society (that means you and me) would have to rebel against the antics of parents who show their butt with outrageous displays of “false” indignation while at the same time showing a very real sense of “entitlement” whenever their children are disciplined.

It is these parents who also need some behavioral assistance, unlike the parents of the wronged high school student I mentioned who not only sucked up the unmerited punishment but successfully dissuaded their son’s friends from mounting a create demonstration to free him from the injustice.

We need to support discipline in schools but like TSA move to a system that is more effective and fair and focuses on people who may be dangerous to others not just things.

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