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Setting the Expectation for Deviance: School Policies and Urban Youth

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Setting the Expectation for Deviance: School Policies and Urban Youth

With the number of incarcerated people on the rise, economic advantages to building prisons, and incentives for law enforcement to get “tough on crime” it seems that more states are focused on increasing their prison population than their student populations.  As state budges cut their funding for schools and increase their funding to build new prisons, the message is clear: there is an expectation that the prison population will continue to grow rapidly. How are schools being part of this expectation of the growth of the prison population? According to Erica Meiners, the school-to-prison pipeline is an issue that is plaguing urban public schools, as school-based-disciplinary policies are preparing poor urban students to enter the prison system. School policies such as suspensions, dress codes, and the use of metal detectors are making schools look more like prisons and students look more like prisoners. How are these school policies setting the expectation for urban youth of color to break school policies instead of thrive in schools?  How are these policies made visible to the students, families, and communities that are being targeted?

The similarities between some urban public schools and state prisons are undeniable. Public policies used to increase the prison population are now being used in schools. These policies, such as zero-tolerance policies and suspensions take students out of the classroom, limit their learning and socialize them to believe that over-policing is normal (Meiners, 2007, pp. 32-33). Examples of these specific policies can be seen throughout high schools in the United States, like the one that Sasha pointed to in her post of the morning routine for students in Boston Public schools who must pass through a metal detector before entering schools. Although this policy may be framed as a measure of security to students and families, the act of passing through a metal detector every morning before entering the classroom is not only strikingly similar to the process of entering prisons, it is also dehumanizing. Schools that do this are sending an unspoken message to students that they do not trust them and are setting an expectation for violence. Why else would a school have a metal detector if it didn’t expect students to attempt to bring weapons to school? By framing their students as inherently deviant and in need of surveillance, their perception of the students is clear and they are not setting them up for learning and success.

Another school policy that is detrimental to student success and can be seen as a preparation to enter the prison system is suspensions. With an increase in zero-tolerance policy, more students are being suspended and therefore taken out of the classroom. According to Tratner, students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of high school and therefore have less opportunity of finding meaningful employment (Tratner pp. 56).  Therefore, when a student breaks a school rule and the solution is to take them out of the classroom or the school, it is actually detrimental to their learning. Rather than address the issue in a way that provides the student with the opportunity to change his or her behavior, the school is sending the student on a path that may increase their likelihood of repeating a grade, dropping out, and ultimately have lower chances of finding meaningful employment. The issue becomes even more urgent when Meiners points out that “just one more year of high school would significantly reduce incarceration (and crime) rates” (Meiners, pp. 59). This relationship between they ways in which zero-tolerance policies in schools are similar to those in the prison system was also well illustrated in another picture that Sasha posted. Her fourth image depicting zero-tolerance policies in schools makes it difficult to distinguish whether the picture depicts a school or in jail. The lines between these two institutions become blurred in that image, as we see a guy walking through a metal detector with books, then sitting in a classroom and being told to leave and finally ending behind bars. The image is a clear example of how prisons and schools are becoming more similar meanwhile urban students of color and communities are being told that these policies are to their own benefit.

As I think about the school to prison pipeline, I recall my own experience with these policies in schools. Although we did not have a metal detector at my high school, I remember various times in which it became a possibility as the school board debated the need to secure our schools. At the time, I did come to believe that metal detectors belonged in schools as way to decrease violence, although we only had one incident of a violent weapon throughout my entire four years there. The situation was similar for another neighborhood high school in my city. After an increased concern on the part of the school board, principals and teachers, the school instituted a strict dress code and ensured that every student would follow it. They did this by having students stand in line every morning waiting to be inspected by school officials.  The guys were asked to pull up their pants and girls had to put their hand down at their sides to make sure that their skirts were longer than the tips of their fingers. This process of surveillance was not only time consuming, but also it once again sent a strong message to the student population that their teachers and school officials expected them to break the dress code. Looking back, it seems as though the rationale for a metal detectors and strict dress code surveillance was not increasing violence and dress code violations, but an overwhelming public perception that our schools needed to be reformed and policed.

Perceptions and expectations send a strong message to students and communities of how they are seen by the public school system. Each time a school makes a policy that polices, surveils, and punishes students it is sending an spoken message of who they think the students are and will be when they leave school. When students are expected to break the rules and are not given a fair chance at learning, they are being prepared for failure.  How can school policies reflect the idea of schools as a place for learning and growing? What is the responsibility of school officials in creating policies that allows students to feel as though each time they walk into a school they are expected to thrive? By setting high expectations for students, and making the school a learning environment instead of a policed environment that resembles prisons, school officials will do a better job at ending the school-to-prison pipeline. If not, this pipeline will continue to exist as long as schools look like prisons and students are treated like prisoners.












De La Cruz, S. (2012). Zero-Tolerance Policy= Prisons in Schools. Women in Walled

Communities: Voice. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College. /exchange/zero-tolerance-policy-prisons-schools

Meiners, E., (2007). Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public

Enemies. New York: Routledge.

Tratner, C. (2012). From Domination to Liberation: Blurring the Line Between Prisons and Schools. Middletown: Wesleyan University.