One afternoon, working at a high school, I opened my classroom door at lunch to get some air. Near my classroom, there was a line of disgruntled students standing outside of the on campus probation office, checking in with the probation officer, a mandatory chore that must be done before students can take their lunch break. Dozens of students walk in and out of this room every day. I do not know how long public schools have been equipped with their own probation officer, but I thought it was a strange sight. After some investigation, I learned that even some middle schools in this area now have them as well.
This little experience began to open my eyes to how much the educational system and correctional system are beginning to merge. I saw the huge black gate that surrounds the school before, but now see it in a different context. There is an armed sheriff that stands in the middle of the lunch quad everyday; I hardly noticed him before. There was one at my high school 19 years ago, so I always thought it was normal to be policed at school. Now he seems so menacing and intimidating. Why do we need a guy walking around with a weapon in plain view, if not for intimidation? Is this the way we want to coerce our students into behaving?
The oppressive containment policies used to criminalize youth on the street are being extended onto the school campus with all the accompanying dehumanization, racial profiling and even physical violence and threats of violence. The presence of cops and probation officers changes the character of school culture as it pertains to student disciplinary policy into one of containment and control. Students are naturally seen as potential criminals in such an environment, especially minorities, and African Americans in particular. The historical view of African Americans in particular as dangerous and unruly plays a part in this phenomenon as well. They are viewed as less innocent, less capable and treated that way as well. They are punished more severely than white youth for the same infractions, suspended and expelled at higher rates, starting in pre-school.
This not to deny the real threat of student violence and poor behavior threatening the learning experience of other students. The problem is that just like in the larger society, our social problems are dealt with punitively instead of proactively and the traditionally marginalized students, poor, African American, Latino and Native Americans get it the worst. Many of our students come into school with issues that the school system is not equipped to deal with. Using cops, threats of probation and criminal records to contain our students is easier than actually dealing with the problems our students bring into the classroom.
Perhaps more staff trained in mental health and behavioral dysfunction, such as counselors and psychologists would be more helpful to the students than law enforcement. Conflict resolution skills and mediation implemented widely starting at a young age are better tools to ensure appropriate behavior than busting them for fighting or truancy in secondary school and placing them on probation. Why should school misbehavior set students up with a record setting them on the road to juvenile detention or jail before they are old enough to know what’s coming down on them?
There have been times in the past few years that these matters have been discussed in the classroom It is obvious that this punitive school culture goes beyond the cops and influences other security staff as well. I have heard stories from students about being berated by administrators and threatened to be sent to the sheriff for not stopping to pledge allegiance to the flag during morning announcements in the front office. Students are searched without consent. A youth was reprimanded for an altercation with another student on the third day of school, the first thing he was asked is if he were a ‘blood’. This same student reported being forced by security to stand still or he will be slammed. One white student reported how he wanders the campus during class time with out a pass carefree and notices how African American students are harassed and made to dig their passes out of their pockets.
Students of all ethnic groups and backgrounds agree that students are racially profiled and some students are treated with more regard than others. There were also comments made like, “I’m an athlete so I ain’t gotta worry about all that”. Apparently all students are not subject to the same rules and regulations, some are more prone to be reprimanded in a harsh manner.
I’ve known students that don’t know how to fit into the box they are expected to for some reason or another. Some have real problems at home and act out. Very little is done to address the root problems of the students besides piecemeal step programs meant to be more of a paper trail than an actual intervention.
They are simply penalized for their failure to conform until they are expelled or end up in court. This is the school to prison pipeline in action. I have had numerous students doing relatively well, showing up regularly or semi regularly, trying to keep in line with the dictates of their probation and getting violations and sent to court and sentenced for smoking cigarettes in the bathroom or defending themselves. One can even get busted for carrying a lighter on probation as a minor.
The general criminalization of oppressed youth in society has parallels in the educational system. Police patrol the schools with the same biases that they carry in the streets, leading to a massive school to prison pipeline. The most vulnerable of our young men and women are being caught in a system that leads from the classroom to juvenile detention. Minor infractions that would once land a student in the principals’ office such as fighting, truancy or minor vandalism can now land students on probation, in juvenile hall and with criminal records.
They end up with a record for misbehavior at school. The school to prison pipeline is part of the system of mass incarceration. Youth are already being accustomed to being treated like criminals before they are adults. Presumably, most adults in the penal system spent time in juvenile institutions as adolescents, there is no mystery as to where this pipeline will lead for many of the students that get in trouble in school.
This has to be viewed in the context of the history of injustice in the education system, unfair police targeting and social oppression of minorities in America. It is a continuation of an old policy in a new form, not some new thing that just popped up because of student misbehavior. Students must be able to connect these realities to the history of this country and oppose it the same way they did other forms of oppression in the past, as an injustice and part of a system that is as hostile to them as it ever was.