Annette Fuentes is the author of a compelling new book, entitled Lockdown High: When The Schoolhouse Becomes A Jailhouse.
Fuentes is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She has written for the New York Times, and she contributes to USA Today and others. Fuentes is also part of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project; an organization founded by Barbara Ehrenreich, whose mission is to “force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity, to the center of the national conversation.”
In the following exclusive interview, Fuentes talks about her work, her book and shares insight into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” including zero tolerance policies that puts kids in harm’s way.
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Max Eternity: There is this term “school-to-prison pipeline.” Michele Alexander and other writers and intellectuals are using it, and the term is used in your book. It doesn’t appear to be physical. What is this: a formula? We’ll get into more details, but in a nutshell: how does this exist?
Annette Fuentes: The school to prison pipeline dates back to the early 2000’s and the conference that I attended organized by the Civil Rights Task Force. Back then Orefield and his colleagues were very interested in looking at the education system, public schools, and the ways that school discipline were having detrimental impacts on low income students—Black and Latino students. The term was being used back then, and what the term seeks to convey is the idea that when schools fail, students, the most vulnerable, makes them more vulnerable for falling into the criminal justice system. That happens in lots of different ways that these students fall into harm’s way. The term talks also about schools themselves: schools creating an environment that criminalizes students.
Max Eternity: In Lockdown High, you state how school violence has been falling steadily in the last decade. However, it doesn’t at all appear that way by listening to the pundits and major news outlets. There are so many stories about young people and gun violence, and school shootings, so what’s really happening?
Annette Fuentes: One of the main drivers of my desire to do the book. The counter intuitive fact is that school violence is not exploding–that there is hysteria around school violence, predating columbine. By looking at statistics of the National Center On Education Statistics, there is a report that I looked at; that for ten years, where you can tract the incidents of school violence. And if you look at these reports, school violence is going down. The notion of a columbine that can happen any day at any school gets people hyped up. Yet, the reality of falling crime …I was astonished.
Students being criminalized in schools for shoving in hallways and playing pranks on other students today, can be labeled as disorderly conduct or assault, and kids being led away in handcuffs.
Max Eternity: You tell the story of a town in Texas where teachers have been granted the legal right to carry guns in classrooms, yet the town’s schools had no history of violence. How do you explain such behavior, then?
Annette Fuentes: Its par for the course for the kind of hysterical understanding of perception of public schools that kids are violent and out of control—that that instead of dealing with real issues of creating safe learning environment, they react with fear.
Texas is a leader of some of the most egregious examples. Of course, we know that more guns means more violence, and accidental shootings, and less safety. Specifically, for people to embrace guns, it shows the insanity and hysteria around school violence, and a lack of good leadership.
Max Eternity: “Crime And Punishment: The Zero Tolerance Epidemic” is the title of Chapter 3 of your book, in which you start by quoting then Governor George W. Bush’s first Texas state of the state address, which reads:
We face two major issues: how to fund our schools and how to govern them…Texas must…have safe classrooms. We must adopt one policy for those who terrorize teachers or disrupt classrooms—zero tolerance. School districts must be encouraged, not mandated, to start “Tough Love Academies.” These alternative schools would be staffed by a different type of teacher, perhaps retired Marine drill sergeants, who understand that discipline and love go hand in hand…If we are going to save a generation of young people our children must know they will face bad consequences for bad behavior.
Yet, Russell Skiba of Indiana University’s Center for Safe and Responsive Schools, who you also quote, says “zero tolerance doesn’t make a difference,” and asks “What if we are creating the conditions for placing higher proportions of students at risk for jail?”
There’s a huge disconnect between Bush’s philosophy and Skiba’s, please comment on this.
Annette Fuentes: George w. Bush really was a leader, again, from Texas. Not surprising, although Clinton created the federal zero tolerance law. Bush was a creator of no child left, which I would say was much of the impotence of criminalized schools, in an insidious way. As opposed to a politician like Bush, Skiba knows what schools are like. No Child created conditions with extreme pressure for the testing mandates; creating a system where teachers remove from classrooms students that are difficult to educate. If you have the power to remove a student from the classroom that makes your collective classrooms test scores go up, that’s an incentive. No child has really contributed to the zero tolerance policies.
Max Eternity : In Chapter 3, as well, you talk about a correlation between African-American students and other minority kids from low-income families—getting free or subsidized lunch at school—who also make up the demographic of those with the highest rates of school [detention] suspension. Is this one of the ways the “school-to-prison pipeline” can be defined?
Annette Fuentes: It’s clear that kids from certain demographics—including income, background, race and ethnicity—that we can look at that and predict how good the schools are, and rate of racial suspensions and zero tolerance policies. Part of that demographic is income, so when you look at that indicator that means that all those kids that come from the poverty level, generally speaking, can determine a kids prospects in school; determine dropout rates and incidents with the criminal justice system. We know that African-American students will face a disproportionate experience with zero tolerance policies. These kids are more likely to drop out. It’s like a daisy chain of circumstances that relate to a kids background.
Max Eternity: The US security industry, you say, has “increasingly targeted schools as a vast, rich market,” which now approaches $20B in annual sales. Right now, Chicago Teachers are on strike for fair wages and other things. What’s going on with the money—financial priorities. What of “The Profiteers of Lockdown High,” for which you’ve named a chapter in your book?
Annette Fuentes: It’s again, an unfortunate consequence of bad choices that federal and state policies encourage. I think it’s true that now because of the recession schools have less money for surveillance. They have less of that money. However, it is true that schools still embrace doing the kind of high tech security surveillance in schools based on faulty assumptions on what makes for a safe school. Remember, we’re a society that has been crime obsessed for the last few decades now. Violent crime in this country has been on a trend of downward crime. NYC, for instances has the lowest crime rate it’s seen in decades.
So why are we still so really fearful of crime? Why are we as a nation still obsessed with crime? It’s a disconnect between reality and peoples fear and paranoia. Schools are part of that. It’s cognitive dissonance: what is really going on and what people perceive as going on.
There are schools around the country that create safe learning environments, where they [students] also feel free to make mistakes.
Max Eternity : Could you talk about a few solutions to these problems?
Annette Fuentes: I think one of the best ones that really work, in Oakland for instance, is Restorative Justice. It’s an excellent program; to teach kids how to deal with their issues. Restorative justice is about restoring what has been taken. It’s quite an excellent model.
Another is Conflict Resolution. Conflict Resolution trains kids to be peer [conflict] mediators. In New York this has worked. Resolving problems creatively is a national model. If you see kids learning how to mediate conflicts between their classmates, it’s inspiring.
We can teach kids to be fearful of their classmates or we can teach kids to have compassion and be critical thinkers. An expression that somebody used is schools have to be a place where kids make mistakes, and where they learn to correct those mistakes. If a kid makes a mistake in math class, you don’t/ kick them out; you teach them how to solve the problem.
Today’s classrooms are like pressure cookers. There’s no room for learning anymore—to be responsible citizens—to be classmates who care.