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From Schoolhouse to Jailhouse: Doing Hard Time in Publici Schools

Publication Date: 2008-08-10

The truth of the matter is that our system must leave plenty of students behind. We don't have living wage jobs for everybody.

This commentary is from The Black Commentator, April 8, 2004.

"Urban Pedagogies and the Celling of Adolescents of Color," by Garrett Duncan [in Social Justice: A Journal of Crime Conflict and Social Order, 2000], gives examples of how images of "dangerous youth" are used to justify incarceration. The essay centers on how the association between urban schools and prisons reflects the historical relationship between the white-controlled public education of subjugated U.S. populations and the economy. Specifically, under segregation, urban pedagogies work through students of color to make them less economically competitive and to prepare them to occupy and accept subordinate roles in the socioeconomic system.

Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, could be as infamous as Columbine High, evoking images of terror in the hallways of a public school as chilling as the Colorado schoolâs day of infamy in April 1999.

On November 5, 2003, local police conducted an early morning, commando-style drug raid at the request of Stratfordâs principal. It was all captured on video, thanks to surveillance cameras the school installed to monitor student behavior. Guns were drawn as the cops ordered dozens of students down on the floor, handcuffed them and brought in a dog to sniff the studentsâ backpacks. The dog signaled drugs 12 times, and not surprisingly, no drugs were found (drug-sniffing dogs are notoriously unreliable). But the gun-toting cops and dog had their effect. As one 15-year-old boy told a reporter, âI froze up. I didnât know what to do. Everybody thought it was a terrorist attack.â

These days, itâs getting hard to tell the terrorists from those supposedly protecting us from them. At Stratford High, 17 students have filed suit against the police and school district claiming their constitutional rights to due process and to protection from unreasonable search and seizure were violated. But they will be fighting an uphill battle, no doubt. âStudent rightsâ has become an oxymoron over the last decade, as local, state and federal laws â" as well as the U.S. Supreme Court â" have stripped young people of their rights as they enter the schoolhouse door. Whatâs more, those laws and the courts that enforce them in the educational arena have promoted the transformation of U.S. public schools into prison-like institutions, where metal detectors, surveillance cameras, random drug searches, uniformed police and zero tolerance policies are part of the curriculum.

Welcome to Lock Down High.

Public schools have tumbled so far down the slippery slope toward the model of a correctional facility, where policing strategies substitute for enlightened pedagogy, that most Americans take for granted that schools and their pupils are out of control. The reality is far different. Todayâs youth commit fewer violent crimes â" in schools and outside â" than they did a decade ago. School violence in fact, is at an all time low and has been falling steadily since the early 1990s, according to yearly reports from the federal National Center for Education Statistics and the Department of Justice. Drug use is down, too, among the young despite a culture of adult drug and alcohol abuse thatâs excused, if not rewarded (think Rush Limbaughâs Oxycontin addiction, or the reported substance abuse of young George W. Bush). In New York City, as in other urban centers, major crimes in schools have steadily declined: from 2001 to 2002, they dropped 14 percent; last year, the decline was 8 percent.

Yet statistics about safer schools and a generation of young people better than their parents by many indicators, have been trumped by a mythology of violent youth and schools whose genesis dates to the Reagan years. Back then, conservative criminologists James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio fueled the myth with predictions of a new juvenile âsuperpredator,â their rhetoric steeped in racist stereotypes of young Black and Latino males as a more vicious breed of criminal. When juvenile violent crime spiked in the early 1990s and began to fall, the myth was invigorated by a series of splashy, school shootings that claimed multiple victims. Columbine was only the most dramatic because the death toll â" 15 â" was the highest. Jonesboro, Arkansas, Paducah, Kentucky and Springfield, Oregon all had their school shootings, and in each case, the perpetrators were mentally disturbed white males with ready access to firearms. The superpredators, it would seem, were not ghetto thugs, but suburban outcasts spawned by a culture of alienation and gun worship.

Columbine only pumped up the zero-tolerance frenzy and crackdown on students in public schools that was well underway across the country. And while consequences for all young people have been felt in classrooms from San Francisco to Cleveland to Miami, the effects of zero tolerance and policing in our public schools have been most devastating for Black children. A veritable epidemic of suspensions, triggered by harsh disciplinary policies, ejects 3 million students every year from school. And of those, more than one third are Black students although they represent just 17 percent of all public school students. Suspensions disrupt childrenâs education, put them at risk for academic failure and increase the chances of high school drop-out, according to ample research. In some jurisdictions, suspensions are increasingly accompanied by police arrests for disorderly conduct and minor violations of disciplinary codes that used to be handled by principals. Far from improving a studentâs behavior, suspensions too often for Black youth begin a downward spiral into the criminal justice system.

Stratford High is no exception to the rule of racial disparity in how zero tolerance and criminalizing of students plays out. Black students comprised just 20 percent of the schoolâs 2,700 students. But of 107 students rounded up in the drug raid, two-thirds were Black youth. This lesson in racial profiling wasnât lost on students. One white student told The New York Times she considered the cops racist because, âI looked down the long hall and saw the police lining up all these black students.â In the same article, a Black student described how cops descended on her with guns drawn as she exited a bathroom: "I assumed that they were trying to protect us, that it was like Columbine, that somebody got in the school that was crazy or dangerous. But then a police officer pointed a gun at me.â

Stratford High sure isnât like Columbine. In February, I attended a forum on zero tolerance in the public schools organized by the Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. An education specialist with the group told how heâd recently met a young woman who had attended Columbine High and was present during the shootings. He asked her how things had changed after the incident, were there metal detectors and guards? Oh, no, she told him. There are no metal detectors. But the hallways were crawling with counselors to offer support and comfort. Investing in human resources, not hardware, was the prophylaxis Columbine administrators â" and presumably parents in that affluent, white suburban enclave â" chose for keeping students safe.

Columbine-style incidents are rare despite the exaggerated media attention and widespread perception that school violence is rampant. That isnât to say physical violence and disruptive behaviors arenât a problem in many schools. The question, though, is what conditions in schools foster negative behaviors and encourage youth to drop out. A report, âEquity or Exclusion,â by the National Centers for Schools and Communities at Fordham University in November 2003, answers that clearly. The report reveals the overwhelming correlation between high suspension rates and racially segregated, resource-starved schools. Those schools with the highest suspension rates were the most overcrowded, with the least qualified and educated teachers, the fewest extracurricular activities, library resources or functioning computers â" and the highest percentage of Black and Latino students.

The racial discrimination inherent in New York Cityâs public schools â" where majority white and Asian Stuyvesant High in posh Tribeca can produce Westinghouse Science Award winners while majority Black JFK High in the Bronx produces students with criminal records â" is hardly surprising. And neither is it an accident. In New York as elsewhere, the educational tracking of students steers some into achievement and opportunity, while others are funneled into the prison track. In his article, âUrban Pedagogies and the Celling of Adolescents of Color,â (Social Justice, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2000) Garrett Albert Duncan understands the U.S. public education system in the context of the prison-industrial complex, where investment in corrections outstrips that in schools in California, New York and other states with large urban centers and Black and Latino populations. âUrban pedagogies effectively serve an economic function: to channel young people of color in the U.S. into the prison system,â he writes. Forget the narrative of education as the âgreat equalizer,â Duncan says. Historically public schools have always functioned on one level to prepare a workforce and today that means preparing Black and Latino students for âsubordinate roles in the economy and, by extension, society.â Racism and the economic imperatives of a postindustrial society, Garret argues, intersect to create an urban pedagogy that works on and through Black and Latino students to make them an ill-educated, superfluous population for whom prison is a logical option.

A professor of Education and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Duncan told me he had his âeurekaâ moment when doing research in that cityâs public schools. He came across a state-of-the-art computer lab that was locked and unused because necessary parts were missing and the principal never completed the hook-ups. âIt finally hit me over the head in St. Louis. What I saw in these schools are the same things W.E.B. Dubois talked about: placing an easily identifiable group of students out of competition with white kids. What would our society be like if every child was educated to full potential? It would be utter chaos because we donât have jobs for every child.â

In Lock Down High, where school budgets are invested in surveillance and security hardware, on more school cops, not better educated teachers or enrichment programs, functioning computers and well-stocked libraries, students are doing exactly what is expected of them. The system works.

Annette Fuentes is a New York freelance journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. With a 2002 fellowship on children and family policy from the Philip Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland, she researched school violence, zero tolerance policies and theschool-to-prison track in public schools

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