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The Criminalization of Students

In her new book, Marsha Weissman gets insights on the school-to-prison pipeline from the students themselves.
(Photo: bbcworldservice/Flickr)

(Photo: bbcworldservice/Flickr)

"Every young person should be safe," Bill Clinton declared to the students of Webster Groves High School in St. Louis during his 1996 re-election campaign. "I want us to be safe and secure.... I know, too, that unless we can purge ourselves of crime and violence and drugs and gangs, your future will never be what it ought to be. So I ask you to stand up as you have here for the concept of zero tolerance in schools...."

Clinton presented zero-tolerance policies, in which students receive suspension or expulsions for weapons possessions, and often for smaller violations like insubordination, as a way to keep schools safe and free of violence. Yet, as Marsha Weissman shows in her new book Prelude to Prison: Student Perspectives on School Suspension, researchers have never found a significant amount of school violence in the United States. In 1994, when Clinton signed the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act, crime in schools had already started what would be a decades-long decline. In 1992, there were 144 crimes per 1,000 students, with 95 incidents of theft, 44 incidents of violent crime, and only 10 instances of "serious violent crime." By 2010, the rate of crime per 1,000 students had fallen 79 percent. As a 2012 NPR report argued, "school-age and college-age kids are not only safer but far more secure on school campuses than anywhere else."

At least, they're safe from shootings and what we typically think of as crime. However, that doesn't exactly mean that they're safe. On the contrary, as Weissman documents, certain students face a constant, grinding threat of violence in schools. That threat doesn't come from their fellow students, though, but from administrators and zero-tolerance policies. And the threat doesn't take the form of gun violence or fist-fights or gangs, but of policing and imprisonment.

In 2012, the number of suspended students topped three million, and in that same year, African-American students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended as white students.

Research indicates that zero-tolerance policies do little to reduce inter-student violence. Instead, Weissman finds, the policies work mostly as a way to set black students and students of color up for failure, and ultimately for prison. Between 1974 and 2000, according to Weissman, school suspension rates doubled, from 3.7 to 6.6 percent. In 2012, the number of suspended students topped three million, and in that same year, African-American students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended as white students. Again, this increase occurred despite falling crime rates (both inside and outside schools) throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Students who are suspended drop out of school at elevated rates. Students suspended even once are almost three times as likely to drop out as those who have not been suspended. High school dropouts, in turn, according to Weissman, are five times as likely to go to prison as high school graduates. A 2002 study estimated that more than half of African-American high school dropouts ended up in prison by the time they were 35. Thus, suspension begins a process that leads students out of schools and into prisons.

There are more direct links between schools and prisons as well. Chief among them, Weissman says, is "the increased presence of police in schools." In the late 1970s, there were only about 100 police officers in schools in the entire country. By 2003, at the peak, there were 14,300. That figure has declined somewhat because of funding cuts, but not by much. Today, New York City has more police in schools than are deployed in most U.S. cities.

The presence of police mirrors a tendency to treat students, and especially black students, as if they are criminals. This phenomenon has been documented before—notably by Annette Fuentes in her 2011 book Lockdown High. Students are subjected to routine searches via metal detector and sometimes pat-downs. The extreme result of this logic, as Weissman says, are cases like that of a five-year-old African-American girl in St. Petersburg, Florida, who was arrested for a tantrum in which she hit a school administrator. Or, there’s the May 2012 incident in which a student in Houston, Texas, was put in jail for a night because she missed class to work to support her family.

Based on her work in an alternative school in Syracuse, New York, Weissman argues that the trend toward treating schools as prisons is most advanced in those alternative schools set aside for students who have already been suspended. As in prison, those in the alternative school are disproportionately poor (100 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches) and are overwhelmingly black or people of color. Beyond that, Weissman describes "doors locked to late students, interested parents, and community members; extensive surveillance and security technologies; and chaotic school halls." The school library was completely devoid of books, the building was inadequately heated—and for security reasons, children were not allowed to wear coats, and so spent the entire day shivering. The students, many of whom had family members caught in the vortex of the criminal justice system, were quite aware of the similarities between the alternative schools and prison. Asked about how it made him feel to have to take off his coat and shoes every time he came into the alternative school, one student responded: "Like in jail, like I was in jail."

Interviews with students are in many ways the heart of Weissman's books. The children are (contrary to stereotype) committed to education, and hopeful that, through their own academic efforts, they can succeed in school and on the job market. But they also see the school as an institution that doesn't share either their hopes or their goals. Instead, the logic of zero tolerance creates a situation in which the administration seems to be looking for reasons to toss students out, rather than for ways to help them prosper. One boy Weissman talks to was suspended when he disarmed his brother to prevent him from stabbing another student. Another student was ejected for being in the hall; he had a pass, but a police officer didn't believe he did, and the situation quickly escalated into a pissing match which the police officer, of course, won. One boy commented that he was suspended because "they were tired of me." After a series of disciplinary infractions and teacher complaints, school officials simply didn't want to deal with him anymore, and so he was kicked out.

"If students believe that they can be suspended unjustly, their commitment to education is eroded," Weissman writes. But really, her book suggests that it is not students, but teachers, administrators, and the school system which have collectively lost faith, and interest, in education. One of the most depressing stories in the book comes near the end, when Weissman describes how she took a number of students from the alternative school to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before a committee investigating racial discrimination. At first, the district wanted to have an assembly to honor the kids after their return. Students and parents were told of the assembly. But then, the administrators changed their minds. The students who had been to Geneva were not attending class regularly, and the district decided it would send the wrong message to hold the assembly. Discipline mattered more than student achievement.

In 1992, there were 144 crimes per 1,000 students, with 95 incidents of theft, 44 incidents of violent crime, and only 10 instances of "serious violent crime."

The claim that schools are violent, then, is less an expression of concern for kids than an excuse to exert control over particular groups of students—those who are poor, those who are non-white, and especially those who are black. For many children, school is not, and is not meant to be, a place of education or opportunity. Instead it is, and all the signs suggest it is intended to be, an institution of control, of policing, and of punishment.

Much of this is not a revelation to anyone who has read about either contemporary schools or prisons. Weissman's book, though, highlights the voices of students themselves, and as such is both more painful, and more hopeful, than these discussions usually are. "So nobody really cared," one student says of her alternative school. "In Brig, they was passing you anyways. So like nobody really cared but you wasn't really learning nothing." Another boy explained the school-to-prison pipeline: "[Y]ou get kicked out of school, you go to prison, and then you die."

Students are very aware of what is being done to them. They see that they are despised—which can be a cause of further despair, but can also give them the opportunity to push back. As one student said after her trip to the United Nations: "We all activists now!" Like other researchers, Weissman proposes new programs and new approaches—most notably an end to zero-tolerance policies. But she also suggests that the best advocates for change are not social workers or policymakers, but those whom the school system so often sees as worthless and disposable: the students themselves.