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School Rules?

Michaela's picture

I have to confess that I am a little bit of a goody two shoes. I have been for most of my life, and my efforts to color within the lines have been rewarded, encouraging me to stay on the straight and narrow. I didn’t cut class, I never forgot my homework, I kept my room clean, and I cried my way out of detention the only time it was ever threatened (for tardiness). And, as a result, I got good grades, kept my parents’ respect, and was regarded by my teachers and peers as an overall good kid. I’ve mostly continued this streak into college. (I worry that it means I’m that kid that I’m writing this on Monday afternoon for a Wednesday due date, so, in that case, I apologize.) I do deviate in some of the socially acceptable college student ways, and enjoy my independence, but I still pride myself on being conscientious. Looking at HSBurke’s photo of the little boy standing behind the bars of his school, I could all too easily see that, through the kind of schooling that is reflected by the T chart, he could in 20 years be the grown man, locked behind the bars of a prison. All this makes me wonder how much of who we are as children, shaped by the environment around us, will be what we become as adults. And, if so, what role do our schools, which appear not dissimilar to correctional facilities, play in creating what brands us as “good” or “bad” people?

            Looking at the number of similarities in patterns of administration between schools and prisons displayed in HSBurke’s image, I see many things that are familiar to me as a product of a public school system. Loss of individual autonomy is a big one. Unlike in Sasha’s photos, I did not have metal detectors at my school, but teachers, administrators, and security guards carefully and closely monitored our activities in and directly outside of the school building. Because I was, admittedly, a little scared of what could happen if I didn’t follow the rules, I gave away my personal freedoms, like being able to go to the restroom when I needed to, and not being interrogated for my reasons for being outside of the classroom. The consequences for not having a hall pass would not have been dire, of course, but I worried that it would erode my image as a “good” student and person, and instead make people think of me as a “bad” one. But what happens when students don’t follow the rules of these authoritarian systems?

            It seems like our school systems are tracking us to either get used to being in good with authority figures, or to being in trouble. Then, as we go on with our lives with this mentality, we either continue to abide by the rules of our surroundings, or we don’t. In a cruel circle, the people for whom the strict rules of school didn’t work or make sense in the first place then become more likely to end up in prisons, where they are subjected to more of the same. These rules are not applicable for everyone, as we have seen, especially based on their prejudiced establishment and enforcement. In fact, they’re not really suitable for anyone, but when you know the codes on how to swallow the hurt of losing autonomy, they’re easier to abide by.

            Efforts to punish students for their wrongdoings in a school atmosphere often remove them from the general student population, further isolating them from their classmates and from the opportunities to continue with their lives and education. For example, suspension and expulsion are a common form of punishment when a student is deemed difficult to discipline in any other way. But, from my own experiences hearing from high school peers who had been suspended, and from speaking to my classmates here about this issue in particular, suspension and expulsion are often just viewed as free time away from school, without much thought given to the disciplinary hopes of the administrators who enforce these punishments. Sharaai said that something like 30 states are not required to provide alternative lessons for students who are suspended or expelled, making it even harder for them to keep up with the education that their classmates are receiving. This framework is not unlike how prisons work­–by removing a “bad” person from their peers and surroundings (in this case, their family, friends and home), prisons are effectively keeping them from continuing their life and work, which, like missing out on education through harsh school punishments, can be extremely debilitating.

            Much of what we have discussed with regards to prisons in this 360 has been about how efforts to rehabilitate, rather than punish, offenders have generally tried and failed to reform the system of penalization. Similarly, reforming school punishment systems seems to prove a daunting task. But having seen how educational opportunities (or the lack thereof) can impact whether or not a person will be put into the criminal justice system, it seems crucial to me that school systems nationwide work to change the unfair and outdated ways that they discipline and govern their students. If schools do not establish the dichotomy of “bad” kids and goody two shoes with staunch rules so early on, a stopgap can perhaps be placed in the school-to-prison pipeline. Then we can work to treat students and prisoners more fairly, under systems of rules that place the needs and autonomy of each person first.