The most recent issue of Rethinking Schools has sparked debate on how the education system criminalizes children. The issue features an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of the important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. In part, she blames zero tolerance policies in many schools, where small infractions on the part of students are met with heavy punishments like suspension or prosecution. These policies prematurely end up introducing children to the justice system by criminalizing behaviors common to many young people. Inspired by this piece, Alan Singer of The Huffington Post has run a few articles (here and here) about the prison-like atmosphere in many New York City public schools. He talks about how students are introduced to the criminal justice system early for fairly trivial transgressions on school grounds.
They are mostly right. As a basketball coach, I get to see the inside of dozens of different schools in New York City. School Safety Agents, who work for the New York City Police Department, often bark at us as soon as we get through the door. They want everyone to sign in, show ID and go through metal detectors. While my boys only have to endure this for the moment they are visiting the school (our own school does not have metal detectors), the students who attend these schools have to do this every single day. I can imagine how demoralizing it must be to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you walk into the building. Once the kids are inside, there is no coming out until the end of the day. There is certainly something prison-like about this atmosphere.
However, as a high school dean of many years, I have to take issue with the entire zero tolerance issue. There has been no zero tolerance policy in any school in which I have worked. Most principals around the city are actually afraid of suspending kids or calling the police, since that all goes into the School Environment Survey that impacts a school’s report card grade. The schools that have the lowest rate of violent incidents are the ones who best underreport those incidents, not necessarily the safest. In my old school, there would be times when students would assault teachers, bring weapons or sell drugs without it resulting in any disciplinary action at all. Charter schools are a different story, since they have the weapon of automatic expulsion at their disposal, something regular public schools do not have.
There need not be a zero tolerance policy in place for a school to feel like a prison. There was an incident that occurred when I was a dean of a particularly violent and troubled boy assaulting one of his teachers. The police were called and they asked if the teacher wanted to press charges. The teacher refused, perhaps out of fear of sending the young boy back to juvenile hall, at which point the police washed their hands of the matter. We asked the cops what could be done and they advised me to search the boy every day as he arrived at school. Having a naïve concern for civil rights, I asked if that was not a violation of improper search and seizure, prompting the police officer to say “it’s your school, you can search whoever you want. You don’t need a reason” Nothing brought home to me more the type of netherworld schools can be than that statement. It was quite chilling.
The truth is, zero tolerance is just one path in the school-to-prison pipeline. What New York City does is very different, yet the result is the same. When kids are welcomed by metal detectors every day, when they are subject to arbitrary search at any time, when surveillance cameras are installed, they are subject to the same type of unfreedom that exists in the prison system. At the same time, when learning standards are eroded, when standardized testing becomes the engine of all instruction and when the small schools provide no enrichment opportunities, you make it clear that the only thing that is expected of children is criminality. There is very little left that resembles a place of learning. Children of the inner cities already come from a world of limited horizons where they only know their five-block radius. Our schools do nothing to expand those horizons. Our schools merely confirm the culture of low expectations that already exist in the inner cities.
In fact, the utter lack of discipline in New York City schools, through education law and through the underreporting policies of many principals, ensures that children develop a very keen criminal nature. The only enrichment activity that is allowed is criminality. There are no other outlets for children and nothing else is expected of them. Zero tolerance policies criminalize students and introduce too many of them prematurely to the criminal justice system. Our schools in NYC are already prisons. Like all prisons, the end result is not rehabilitation of the criminal nature, but a refinement of it.
To some extent, schools have always had this resemblance to prisons. Only the individual teacher, through providing a nurturing and inquisitive classroom environment, or through establishing enrichment activities, could mitigate the impacts of this prison structure. But today, in the era of education reforms that destroy the power of individual teachers, this type of nurturing classroom environment is tougher to come by. By harassing the most veteran teachers out of the system and replacing them with Teach for America mercenaries from the suburbs, the cultural understanding that veteran teachers used to provide is vanishing. These things, combined with the increasing obsession with standardized testing, turns the teacher into a correctional officer who barks out arbitrary orders to the people in their charge. “Sit down. Answer this question, You need to know this. If you do not pass this test, you do not graduate. No excuses.”
So while Alan Singer is essentially correct in positing that our schools resemble prisons, zero tolerance policies have little to do with it. Instead, our schools are set up to anticipate and foster criminality in children.