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Maybe the School to Prison Pipeline Starts in the Lavatory

Posted: 2010-01-25

Students in public schools across the US might say, "Well, at least people in the drunk tank have a place they can relieve themselves."

Writing in the Oxford American,1 Sea Rowe described the drunk tank in Selma, Alabama, as being "downright medieval": It's a cube made of cinder blocks with a single, billion-watt bulb that never goes off in the ceiling. Directly beneath the bulb is a hole in the floor the size of a coffee-can lid, and that's where you answer the call of nature." Students in public schools across the US might say, "Well, at least people in the drunk tank have a place they can relieve themselves."

Writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1928 and preceding French sociologist Michael Foucault by some fifty years, H. L. Mencken summarized the similarity of "arrangements" of prisons and public schools, bent on enforcing routines of "rigidity, monotony, and imbecility." He should see us now. The Chicago Education Model, which defines public schools in a privatizing, market-based, penal mode of operation, is enshrined in the U. S. Department of Education.

President Obama put the Chicago Model in a power position, but across the country students are treated like inmates. They are told what to do and when to do it; their teachers assign tasks according a script written by a corporate conglomerate and sold to the increasingly privatized institutions.

And parents are shut out of decision-making. As New York City Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott put it, "I think the Board of Education needs to be abolished and obviously the mayor needs to be given control."2 The mayor got his way, taking control over the City schools in 2002. In 2007, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty told NPR 3 about his plans to transfer authority over the city's schools from the Board of Education to his office. Chicago, ever on the forefront of travesty in its public schools, gave Mayor Richard Daley control of the schools in 1995. Then-Chicago Public Schools chief executive Arne Duncan told the New York Times 4 that mayoral control provides the best route to tackling the stagnation, bureaucracy, financial troubles and low achievement levels that plagued his system and so many of the nation's urban school districts.

Take-charge Mayors bring to schools the unforgiving and relentless routines that are found in prisons. The author of Alcatraz History 5 puts it this way: "The methodical cycle . . . never varied through the years, and was as precise and reliable as clockwork." This could be a twelve-year-old describing her day in a school that requires uniforms, won’t let her carry a backpack or a purse, orders her teacher to follow a script, and keeps the lavatories locked.

The rigidity and monotony that dominates schools in the name of standardization and order are obvious. Even a passing glance at adolescent psychology reveals the futility of such proscriptive rituals. Certainly it's a truism to state that children entering puberty and their teens need to exert some control over their lives. University of Rochester professors of psychology Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have amassed a large body of research on self-determination theory (SDT), which lays out three innate psychological needs: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness.

When school authorities enforce policies and curricula that emphasize discipline and control and minimize any sense of autonomy or mutual respect, then school becomes a place that deskills and even cripples students. Professor Garrett Duncan, who studies conditions that contribute to success and failure among black students in public schools, observed a decade ago 6 that "urban pedagogies work upon students of color by constructing them as undesirable employees in a service-oriented, high-tech economy. Various forms of media converge to depict these adolescents as violent, lazy, and incompetent, shaping a public perception that imprisonment is a reasonable, if not a natural, option in their lives." No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation has only made the situation worse, cementing school policies about discipline and control and pushing only a "teach to the test" curriculum.

Prisons operate on the premise that "prisoners are inherently unpredictable and dangerous, and must therefore be constrained at all times."7 Schools may lack bars and razor wire, but increasingly, they, too, have come to regard "inmates" as unpredictable objects in need of control, instituting Zero Tolerance policies that would be absurd if they weren't so tragic. Such policies take all decision-making power from teachers and administrators, imposing pre-determined punishments regardless of individual circumstances. School Zero Tolerance policies are more arbitrary even than California's so-called Three Strikes and You’re Out Law which stipulates de facto life imprisonment after three felonies have been committed. Psychologist Richard Wortley has documented8 the need for prison management to reflect the situational nature of prisoner behavior. Likewise, experienced educators insist that a one-size-fits-all discipline policy does much more harm than good.

In both prisons and in schools, rigid policies of control substitute for the resources necessary to create alternative structures. As lawyer Bayard Marin notes9 that "scarce resources plague every aspect of prison administration and, just as society does not like to spend funds on those who are regarded as least deserving. . . . Prison officials preoccupied with matters of security, good order, control, and administrative efficiency do not generally have the time or imagination to create alternatives."

Anyone familiar with schools can say the same: Officials preoccupied with matters of security, good order, control, and budgets do not generally have the time or imagination to create alternatives--such as helping students become responsible for school restrooms. Just read the public comments following an online news article about a school trying to offer alternatives. Taxpayers express outrage at the notion of providing extra resources for students they regard as misbehaving and undeserving.

Take Control

In 2004, a billboard on the highway overlooking the Suffolk County House of Corrections, Boston, Massachusetts, sent a public exhortation, aimed at juveniles and young adults. It read Take control of your life before we do!--Sheriff of Suffolk County.

Unacknowledged is how youth learn to take control of their lives. Nowhere does a school's inflexibility toward individual needs shows up more than in its restroom policy. Today, many public schools don't give students or their teachers control even of the most basic of life functions--elimination of bodily waste. Restrooms are locked so they'll stay functional and clean. School administrators complain that budgetary constraints tie their hands, and they lock restrooms to avoid the cost of frequent cleaning and repair.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in many schools holding the key to the restroom is parallel to being given the key to the city. As school opened in September 2008, Los Angeles Deputy Superintendent Ramon Cortines used restrooms as an example of centralized hyper-control, telling the Wall Street Journal, "If you wanted to go to the restroom you had to get permission from downtown." 10 Complaining that “union issues” revolve around the wrong priorities, district superintendent. David L. Brewer, a retired admiral appointed to the school chief position in 2006, championed the strong leader theory as something that worked in the Navy. In June 2008, he told the Los Angeles Times, 11 "The captain of a ship is a god," he said. "I want the principals to be captains of their ships.” Apparently nobody asked who is captain of the restroom.

Los Angeles is not unique. In schools across the country even teachers are denied access to student restrooms but must petition for a key whenever a student asks to use the facility. Teachers who are juggling scores of other concerns admit they have to see the student dancing in agony before they'll put in the request. These teachers might be shocked to hear how a former staff person described the lavatory policy at the Thayer Learning Center Boot Camp and Boarding School in Kidder, Missouri: This institution denies children use of the toilet, forcing children to wet themselves, among other abuses.

Take a Georgia middle school, where students are not allowed to stop off at the restroom while in the hallways traveling between classes. Trying to avoid student distraction and possible mischief, and to keep them marching along their appointed paths, school authorities keep restrooms locked during these passing periods. Instead, the school schedules restroom breaks at predetermined times One recalls that old public service announcement: It is 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are? The updated school version is: It is 10:22 a.m. Know that your children are lined up outside the lavatory. As Henry David Thoreau observed,12 "The Brahman’s virtue consists in doing, not right, but arbitrary, things."

Certainly, school restroom regulations are arbitrary, based on a schedule determined by administrative fiat rather than in accordance with individual student need. At the appointed time, a teacher lines up her class in the hallway outside the restroom. According to the rules, she is supposed to enter the restroom and make sure it is in good order. Then she escorts 3 or 4 students in, again checking the restroom conditions when the students leave. Note: These are not primary graders. This is a middle school, filled with students aged 11-15.

The school, which by all accounts is a good one, earning a 5 out of 5 from parents in the Great Schools accountability system, needs to ask itself this question: How can a 15-year-old learn to take charge of his life if he is lined up every day for potty patrol? The impulse toward responsibility cannot exist where delineations of that responsibility lie in the arbitrary definition of the person sitting in the position of authority. People who decree that middle schoolers should line up for potty patrol would do well to read a few lines from a book on adolescent psychology:

What causes adolescents to rebel is not the assertion of authority but the arbitrary use of power, with little explanation of the rules and no involvement in decision making. . . . Involving the adolescent in decisions doesn’t mean that you are giving up your authority. It means acknowledging that the teenager is growing up and has the right to participate in decisions that affect his or her life. 13

Citizenship at Its Most Basic

Michael Pollan, a journalist best known for his books about the industrial food chain, points out, "You decide every day what you’re going to put in your body—and what you refuse to put in your body. That’s politics at its most basic." 14 People who care about helping children to become citizens in a democracy need to extend this digestive process to a child practicing citizenship at its most basic--being able to decide every day when to eliminate bodily waste.

Colman McCarthy, longtime columnist for the Washington Post and pioneer in the field of peace education, offers a a 13-word paper written by one of his students that for both brevity and breadth -- the rarest of combinations -- sticks:


"Q: Why are we violent but not illiterate?

A: Because we are taught to read."

Competence, autonomy, and respect for public facilities are learned. They cannot be learned if they are not practiced. If, as happens in some schools, students are handed a pre-determined number of toilet tissues before entering the restroom, when do they learn the appropriate use of restroom supplies? If students are regarded as security risks, when do they learn to be secure?

Newly appointed Hanover Central High School Principal Robert McRae in Cedar Lake, Indiana, created a firestorm of protest from parents when he added to an existing ban of book bags and backpacks by banning purses in the classroom. Parents point out that the policy compromises the privacy of girls who now must find a place for feminine hygiene products in pockets already stuffed with pens, pencils, calculators, and makeup items. Administrators cite the need for "security measures in a post-Columbine world." but one has to ask if this is how a juvenile delinquent is created: forbid a 12-year-old to carry a purse. Columbine has become the citation of first and last resort. When school folk can't resort to reasonableness, they invoke the knee-jerk reflex of Columbine.

In Texas, Gonzales High School students who violate the district's dress code will find themselves wearing prison-style jumpsuits, actually made by Texas inmates. "We're a conservative community, and we're just trying to make our students more reflective of that," Larry Wehde, Gonzales Independent School District deputy superintendent. told the Associated Press. The new dress code casts a wide net by forbidding anything that "disrupts the educational process as determined by a school administrator." Also in Texas, The board of the small rural Harrold Independent School District of about 110 students 150 miles northwest of Fort Worth, unanimously approved the plan to allow its teachers to bring guns to class

Both stories had broad appeal across the country, appearing in print and television media and on scores of online sites. In Vermont, a letter in the Burlington Free Press called Gonzalez a win-win situation. The administration shows who's boss and gets rid of cleavage and facial hair, but the kids rule: they start a new trend—make jumpsuits the new fashion. The letter ends with "Who pays for the suits? Gonzales has ordered 80 but it may need 2,000."

Writing in Social Justice, Ed Mead points out,15 "When General Licinius Crassus impaled the heads of Spartacus and thousands of rebellious followers on spikes along the road to Rome, his doing so did not save the system of slavery or the Roman Empire that lived off it." Nor will forcing middle schoolers to dress in jump suits and line up for potty break keep the restrooms clean—or teach children the skills necessary to becoming citizens capable of fostering a democracy.

Longtime educator Marion Brady makes the point 16 that "People don’t abuse or abandon social institutions that help them meet a need." Instead of recognizing student antagonism toward an inappropriate curriculum as a major source of problems throughout a school, school personnel respond to student misbehavior by "tightening procedural screws." And so students who are already disaffected get scripted curriculum, police in the hallways, zero tolerance policies, uniforms. And locked restrooms.

Such remedies, whether they are billed as Tough Love or Higher Standards, make the problems they were designed to solve worse. Schools have a unique opportunity to enhance students’ cultural capital—the habits assumptions, and dispositions that they acquire from their families and neighbors. And a place they can start is the school restroom. Maybe this isn't really the school-to-prison connection. Maybe it is simply another manifestation of the real point of education now: producing obedient workers. Training students to be obedient does not nurture them to be good citizens, but it trains them to hold their urine.

Standing in a hallway in a high school in Mississippi, Tom Keating, who runs Project Clean and is an advocate for school restroom responsibility, watched nine boys walk out of the restroom together. His first thought was that “nine together can’t be a good thing.” Taken as statistics, only five of those young men will graduate from high school; four will end up in prison. James Flynn points out 17 that between the ages of 25 and 45 there are only 57 black men for every 100 black women in a position to be a permanent partner and father to a family.

Schools must accept their share of the responsibility for this tragedy.

Teacher and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune beseeched us, "We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power towards good ends!" But if teachers hear about any of these nine young men caught defacing the restroom or throwing tissue on the ceiling, the response is likely to be a sigh of resignation, "It's the parents' responsibility. We have no control over how they were raised." Tom disagrees. "Someone needs to help these students see that you go into a restroom and do your business: urinate, flush, wash your hands, put the paper towel in the dispenser, and leave. You are a better person for having done that."

Tom Keating insists that school officials must change. Instead of remaining bent on sticking to a course that turns their institutions into an industry of fear and intimidation, they must look for policies and practices that lead students from soap to citizenship. This requires challenging the school-prison-industrial complex model and offering different habits of mind. More than ten years of traveling school hallways shows Tom that this is a formidable task. It begins by presenting people with a vision that challenges the status quo. It begins by putting students in charge of the restrooms.


1 Sean Rowe, “Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine,” Oxford American, April 2008

2 http://www.caribvoice.org/Profiles/denniswalcott.html

3 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6939000

4 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D02E0DD133CF936A25755C0A9649C8B63

5 http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/rs3.htm

6 Garrett Duncan. Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison-Industrial Complex. A National Conference and Strategy Session, University of Califomia at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (September 25, 1998).

7 Richard Wortley. Situational Prison Control: Crime Prevention in Correctional Institutions

Cambridge University Press 2002

8 Richard Wortley, Situational Prison Control: Crime Prevention in Correctional Institutions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002

9 Inside Justice: A Comparative Analysis of Practices and Procedures for the Determination of Offenses Against Discipline in Prisons of Britain and the United States, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 1983

10 Gabriel Kah, "Los Angeles Sets School-Rescue Program," Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2, 2009

11. Howard Blume, "Power to change schools sought," Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2008

12 Thoreau, Henry David, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849

13 Steinberg , Laurence and Ann Levine You and Your Adolescent 1990

14 Marc Eisen The Progressive November 2008

15 Ed Mead. "Reflections on Crime and Class. " Social Justice. 27.3 (Fall 2000):

16 Marion Brady, "Policy with Punch," American School Board Journal, October 2008

17 James Flynn, "Perspectives: Still a question of black vs white?” New Scientistm Sept 3, 2008

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