Maybe the School to Prison Pipeline Starts in the Lavatory
Publication Date: 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."
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 youĂ˘€™re going to put in your bodyĂ˘€"and what you refuse to put in your body. ThatĂ˘€™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 trendĂ˘€"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 cleanĂ˘€"or teach children the skills necessary to becoming citizens capable of fostering a democracy.
Longtime educator Marion Brady makes the point 16 that "People donĂ˘€™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 studentsĂ˘€™ cultural capitalĂ˘€"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 Ă˘€śnine together canĂ˘€™t be a good thing.Ă˘€ť 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, Ă˘€śInsiderĂ˘€™s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine,Ă˘€ť Oxford American, April 2008
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?Ă˘€ť New Scientistm Sept 3, 2008
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