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Schools and the Pedagogy of Punishment

Students are being miseducated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in lockdown schools that resemble prisons

Part of the Series

The shift to a society now governed through crime, market-driven values and the politics of disposability has radically transformed the public school as a site for a civic and critical education. One major effect can be seen in the increasingly popular practice of organizing schools through disciplinary practices that closely resemble the culture of prisons.[1] For instance, many public schools, traditionally viewed as nurturing, youth-friendly spaces dedicated to protecting and educating children, have become one of the most punitive institutions young people now face – on a daily basis. Educating for citizenship, work and the public good has been replaced with models of schooling in which students, especially poor minority youth, are viewed narrowly either as a threat or as perpetrators of violence. When not viewed as potential criminals, they are positioned as infantilized potential victims of crime (on the Internet, at school and in other youth spheres) who must endure modes of governing that are demeaning and repressive. Jonathan Simon captures this transformation of schools from a public good to a security risk in the following comment:

Today, in the United States, it is crime that dominates the symbolic passageway to school and citizenship. And behind this surface, the pathways of knowledge and power within the school are increasingly being shaped by crime as the model problem, and tools of criminal justice as the dominant technologies. Through the introduction of police, probation officers, prosecutors and a host of private security professionals into the schools, new forms of expertise now openly compete with pedagogic knowledge and authority for shaping routines and rituals of schools…. At its core, the implicit fallacy dominating many school policy debates today consists of a gross conflation of virtually all the vulnerabilities of children and youth into variations on the theme of crime. This may work to raise the salience of education on the public agenda, but at the cost to students of an education embedded with themes of “accountability,” “zero tolerance” and “norm shaping.”[2]

As the logic of the market and “the crime complex”[3] frame a number of social actions in schools, students are subjected to three particularly offensive policies, often defended by school authorities and politicians under the rubric of school safety. First, students are increasingly subjected to zero tolerance laws that are used primarily to punish, repress and exclude them. Second, they are increasingly subjected to a “crime complex” in which security staff using harsh disciplinary practices now displace the normative functions teachers once provided both in and outside of the classroom. Third, more and more schools are breaking down the space between education and juvenile delinquency, substituting penal pedagogies for critical learning and replacing a school culture that fosters a discourse of possibility with a culture of fear and social control. Consequently, many youth, especially poor minorities in urban school systems, are not just being suspended or expelled from school but also have to bear the terrible burden of being ushered into the dark precincts of juvenile detention centers, adult courts and prison.

Once seen as an invaluable public good and laboratory for critical learning and engaged citizenship, public schools are increasingly viewed as a site of crime, warehouses or containment centers. Consequently, students are also reconceived through the optic of crime as populations to be managed and controlled primarily by security forces. In accordance with this perception of students as potential criminals and the school as a site of disorder and delinquency, schools across the country since the 1980’s have implemented zero tolerance policies that involve automatic imposition of severe penalties for first offenses of a wide range of undesirable, but often harmless, behaviors. Based on the assumption that schools are rife with crime and fueled by the emergence of a number of state and federal laws such as the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, mandatory sentencing legislation and the popular “three strikes and you’re out” policy, many educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against kids who brought firearms to schools – this was exacerbated by the high-profile school shootings in the mid-1990’s, the tragic shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and the more recent shootings at Virginia Tech. But as the climate of fear increased, the assumption that schools were dealing with a new breed of student – violent, amoral and apathetic – began to take hold in the public imagination. Moreover, as school safety become a top educational priority, zero tolerance policies were broadened and now include a range of behavioral infractions that encompass everything from possessing drugs or weapons to threatening other students – all broadly conceived. Under zero tolerance policies, forms of punishments that were once applied to adults now apply to first graders. Students who violate what appears to be the most minor rules – such as a dress code violation – are increasingly subjected to zero tolerance laws that have a disparate impact on students of color while being needlessly punitive.

The punitive nature of the zero tolerance approach is on display in a number of cases where students have had to face harsh penalties that defy human compassion and reason. For example, the recentl high-profile case of Zachary Christie, a 6-year old first grader who received a 45-day suspension because he brought to school his favorite Cub Scott camping utensil, which can serve as a knife, fork and spoon. Rather than be treated as a young boy who made a simple mistake, he was treated by the school as a suspect who deserved to be punished. It seems that the only thing being punished in this case was informed reason and critical judgment. Because of the national publicity the case received, school officials modified their decision and allowed the boy to return to school.

Most children who confront these harsh disciplinary procedures are not so lucky. One typical example includes the case of an 8-year-old boy in the first grade at a Miami elementary school who took a table knife to his school, using it to rob a classmate of $1 in lunch money. School officials claimed he was facing “possible expulsion and charges of armed robbery.”[4] In another instance that took place in December 2004, “Porsche, a fourth-grade student at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, elementary school, was yanked out of class, handcuffed, taken to the police station and held for eight hours for bringing a pair of eight-inch scissors to school. She had been using the scissors to work on a school project at home. School district officials acknowledged that the girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, but scissors qualified as a potential weapon under state law.”[5]

It gets worse. Adopting a rigidly authoritarian zero tolerance school discipline policy, the following incident in the Chicago Public Schools system signals both bad faith and terrible judgment on the part of educators implementing these practices. According to the report “Education on Lockdown,” in February 2003, a 7-year-old boy was cuffed, shackled and forced to lie face down for more than an hour while being restrained by a security officer at Parker Community Academy on the Southwest Side. Neither the principal nor the assistant principal came to the aid of the first grader, who was so traumatized by the event he was not able to return to school.[6]

Traditionally, students who violated school rules and the rights of others were sent to the principal’s office, a guidance teacher or another teacher. Corrective discipline in most cases was a matter of judgment and deliberation, generally handled within the school by the appropriate administrator or teacher. Under such circumstances, young people could defend themselves, the context of their rule violation was explored (including underlying issues, such as problems at home, that may have triggered the behavior in the first place), and the discipline they received was suited to the nature of the offense. In other words, teachers and school administrators did what they were supposed to do: listen, exercise judgment and discrimination, and then decide how to handle an infraction. Today, in the age of standardized testing, thinking and acting, reason and judgment have been thrown out the window just as teachers are increasingly being deskilled and forced to act as semi-robotic technicians good for little more than teaching for the test and serving as a reminder that we are arriving at a day when the school curriculum will be teacher-proof. This loss of autonomy results in the sabotaging of critical education and the rise of a culture of security that now defines schools through the narrow optics of measurement and discipline.

Today, as school districts link up with law enforcement agencies, young people find themselves not only being expelled or suspended in record rates, but also being “subject to citations or arrests and referrals to juvenile or criminal courts.”[7] Students who break even minor rules, such as pouring a glass of milk on another student or engaging in a school yard fight, have been removed from the normal school population, handed over to armed police, arrested, handcuffed, shoved into patrol cars, taken to jail, fingerprinted and subjected to the harsh dictates of the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

How educators think about children through a vocabulary that has shifted from hope to punishment is evident in the effects of zero tolerance policies, which criminalize student behavior in ways that take an incalculable toll on their lives and their future. As the nationally syndicated journalist Ellen Goodman points out, zero tolerance has become a code word for a “quick and dirty way of kicking kids out” of school.[8] This becomes clear as cities such as Denver and Chicago – in their eagerness to appropriate and enforce zero tolerance policies in their districts – do less to create a safe environment for students than to simply kick more young people out of the public school system. These are not the young people who attract the dominant media, but poor white, brown and black kids who increasingly are seen as disposable. For example, between 2000 and 2004, the Denver Public Schools experienced a 71 percent increase in the number of student referrals to law enforcement, many for nonviolent behaviors. The Chicago school system in 2003 had over 8,000 students arrested, often for trivial infractions such as pushing, tardiness and using spitballs. As part of a human waste management system, zero tolerance policies have been responsible for suspending and expelling black students in record high numbers. For instance, “in 2000, blacks were 17 percent of public school enrollment nationwide and 34 percent of suspensions.” And when poor black youth are not being suspended under the merger of school security and law and order policies, they are increasingly at risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.

As the Advancement Project points out, the racial disparities in school suspensions, expulsions and arrests feeds and mirrors similar disparities in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

… in 2002, black youths made up 16 percent of the juvenile population but were 43 percent of juvenile arrests, while white youths were 78 percent of the juvenile population but 55 percent of juvenile arrests. Further, in 1999, minority youths accounted for 34 percent of the US juvenile population but 62 percent of the youths in juvenile facilities. Because higher rates of suspensions and expulsions are likely to lead to higher rates of juvenile incarceration, it is not surprising that black and Latino youths are disproportionately represented among young people held in juvenile prisons.[9]

The city of Chicago, which has a large black student population, implemented a take-no-prisoners approach in its use of zero tolerance policies. The racially skewed consequences are visible in grim statistics which reveal that “on average, more than 266 suspensions are doled out … during the school year.” Moreover, the number of expulsions has “mushroomed from 32 in 1,995 to 3,000 in the school year 2003-2004,”[10] most affecting poor black youth.

As the culture of fear, crime and repression dominate American public schools, the culture of schooling is reconfigured through the allocation of resources used primarily to hire more police, security staff and technologies of control and surveillance. In some cases, schools such as the Palm Beach County system have established their own police departments. Saturating schools with police and security personnel has created a host of problems for schools, teachers and students – not to mention that such policies tap into financial resources otherwise used for actually enhancing learning. In many cases, the police and security guards assigned to schools are not properly trained to deal with students and often use their authority in ways that extend far beyond what is either reasonable or even legal. When Mayor Giuliani in 1998 allowed control of safety to be transferred to the New York Police Department, the effect was not only a boom in the number of police and school safety agents but also an intensification of abuse, harassments and arrests of students throughout the school system.

One example of war-on-terror tactics used domestically and impacting schools can be seen in the use of the roving metal detector program in which police arrive at a school unannounced and submit all students to metal detector scans. In “Criminalizing the Classroom,” Elora Mukherjee describes some of the disruptions caused by the program:

As soon as it was implemented, the program began to cause chaos and lost instructional time at targeted schools, each morning transforming an ordinary city school into a massive police encampment with dozens of police vehicles, as many as sixty SSAs [School Security Agents] and NYPD officers, and long lines of students waiting to pass through the detectors to get to class.[11]

As she indicates, the program does more than delay classes and instructional time: it also fosters abuse and violence. The following incident at Wadleigh Secondary School on November 17, 2006, provides an example of how students are abused by some of the police and security guards. Mukherjee writes:

The officers did not limit their search to weapons and other illegal items. They confiscated cell phones, iPods, food, school supplies, and other personal items. Even students with very good reasons to carry a cell phone were given no exemption. A young girl with a pacemaker told an officer that she needed her cell phone in case of a medical emergency, but the phone was seized nonetheless. When a student wandered out of line, officers screamed, “Get the fuck back in line!” When a school counselor asked the officers to refrain from cursing, one officer retorted, “I can do and say whatever I want,” and continued, with her colleagues, to curse.[12]

Many students in New York City have claimed that the police are often disrespectful and verbally abusive, stating that “police curse at them, scream at them, treat them like criminals, and are on ‘power trips.’… At Martin Luther King Jr. High School, one student reported, SSAs refer to students as ‘baby Rikers,’ implying that they are convicts-in-waiting. At Louis D. Brandeis High School, SSAs degrade students with comments like, ‘That girl has no ass.'”[13] In some cases, students who had severe health problems had their phones taken away and when they protested were either arrested or assaulted. Mukherjee reports that “A school aide at Paul Robeson High School witnessed a Sergeant yell at, push, and then physically assault a child who would not turn over his cell phone. The Sergeant hit the child in the jaw, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, removed him from school premises, and confined him at the local precinct.”[14] There have also been cases of teachers and administrators being verbally abused, assaulted, and arrested while trying to protect students from overzealous security personnel or police officers.

Under such circumstances, schools begin to take on the obscene and violent contours one associates with maximum security prisons: unannounced locker searches, armed police patrolling the corridors, mandatory drug testing, and the ever-present phalanx of lock-down security devices such as metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance cameras, and other technologies of fear and control. Appreciated less for their capacity to be educated than for the threat they pose to adults, students are now treated as if they were inmates, often humiliated, detained, searched and in some cases arrested. Randall Beger is right in suggesting that the new “security culture in public schools [has] turned them into ‘learning prisons’ where the students unwittingly become ‘guinea pigs’ to test the latest security devices.”[15]

Poor black and Latino male youth are particularly at risk in this mix of demonic representation and punitive modes of control, as they are the primary object of not only racist stereotypes but also a range of disciplinary policies that criminalize their behavior.[16] Such youth, increasingly viewed as a burden and dispensable, now bear the brunt of these assaults by being expelled from schools, tried in the criminal justice system as adults, and arrested and jailed at rates that far exceed their white counterparts.[17] While black children make up only 15 percent of the juvenile population in the United States, they account for 46 percent of those put behind bars and 52 percent of those whose cases end up in adult criminal courts. Shockingly, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, “[a] jail or detention cell after a child or youth gets into trouble is the only universally guaranteed child policy in America.”[18]

Students being miseducated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in lockdown schools that resemble prisons is a cruel reminder of the degree to which mainstream politicians and the American public have turned their backs on young people in general and poor minority youth in particular. As schools are reconfigured around the model of the prison, crime becomes the central metaphor used to define the nature of schooling while criminalizing the behavior of young people becomes the most valued strategy in mediating the relationship between educators and students. The consequences of these policies for young people suggest not only an egregious abdication of responsibility – as well as reason, judgment and restraint – on the part of administrators, teachers and parents, but also a new role for schools as they become more prison-like, eagerly adapting to their role as an adjunct of the punishing state.

As schools define themselves through the lens of crime and merge with the dictates of the penal system, they eliminate a critical and nurturing space in which to educate and protect children in accordance with the ideals of a democratic society. As a central institution in the youth disposability industry, public schools now serve to discipline and warehouse youth, while they also put in place a circuit of policies and practices to make it easier for minority youth to move from schools into the juvenile justice system and eventually into prison. The combination of school punishments and criminal penalties has proven a lethal mix for many poor minority youth and has transformed schools from spaces of youth advocacy, protection, hope and equity to military fortresses, increasingly well-positioned to mete out injustice and humiliation, transforming the once-nurturing landscapes that young people are compelled to inhabit. Rather than confront the war on youth, especially the increasing criminalization of their behavior, schools now adopt policies that both participate in and legitimate the increasing absorption of young people into the juvenile and adult criminal justice system. Although state repression aimed at children is not new, what is unique about the current historical moment is that the forces of domestic militarization are expanding, making it easier to put young people in jail rather than to provide them with the education, services and care they need to face the growing problems characteristic of a democracy under siege. Wars abroad not only take a toll in needless loss of lives, but also divert valuable resources from expanding public goods, especially schools and the quality of lives of the young people who inhabit them. As minority youth increasingly become the object of severe disciplinary practices in public schools, many often find themselves vulnerable and powerless as they are thrown into juvenile and adult courts – or, even worse, into overcrowded and dangerous juvenile correctional institutions and sometimes adult prisons.

Under this insufferable climate of increased repression and unabated exploitation, young people and communities of color become the new casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social citizenship and democracy. Given the switch in public policy from social investment to a policy of testing, measurement and punishment that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan seem willing to support, it is clear that schools will continue to be the object of malign neglect, viewed less as a public good than a public pathology. Moreover, as government policy continues to push for high-stakes testing, militarizing schools and addressing educational reform through the support of charter schools, it is clear that young people for whom race and class loom large have become disposable and will be the first to be neglected and eventually punished. After all, these are the young people who are viewed as needing more resources, services and in the end lower test scores.

According to the fact that schools today are viewed as instruments of production and adjuncts of the corporation, they are judged largely through that which can only be quantified. Consequently, public schools and the values and principles through which they were organized have more in common with factories and prisons than with an education that prepares people to be knowledgeable, compassionate and critically engaged citizens. How much longer can a nation ignore those youth who lack the resources and opportunities that were available, in a partial and incomplete way, to previous generations? And what does it mean when a nation becomes frozen ethically and imaginatively in providing its youth with a future of hope and opportunity? Under such circumstances, it is time for parents, young people, educators, writers, labor unions and social movements to take a stand and to remind themselves that not only do young people deserve more, but so does an aspiring democracy that has any sense of justice, vision, and hope for the future.[19]


[1] For an excellent analysis of this issue, see Christopher Robbins, “Expelling Hope” (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008); Valerie Polakow, “Who Cares for Our Children” (New York: Teachers College Press, 2007); William Lyons and Julie Drew, “Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, “The Abandoned Generation” (New York: Palgrave Press, 2004). For an excellent documentary film on zero tolerance and lockdown practices in public schools, see “The War on Kids” (2009). Online at:

[2] Jonathan Simon, “Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear> (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 209.

[3] This term comes from David Garland, “The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society> (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[4] Yolanne Almanzar, “First Grader in $1 Robbery May Face Expulsion,” New York Times (December 4, 2008), p. A26.

[5] Advancement Project in partnership with Padres and Jovenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, “Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track” (Chicago: Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law, March 24, 2005), p. 11.

[6] Advancement Project, “Education on Lockdown,” p. 33.

[7] Advancement Project, “Education on Lockdown,” p. 7.

[8] Ellen Goodman, “‘Zero Tolerance’ Means Zero Chance for Troubled Kids,” Centre DailyTimes (Tuesday, January 4, 2000), p. 8.

[9] Advancement Project, “Education on Lockdown,” pp. 17-18.

[10] Advancement Project, “Education on Lockdown,” p. 31.

[11] Elora Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools” (New York: American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties, March 2008), p. 9.

[12] Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom,” p. 6.

[13] Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom,” p. 16.

[14] Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom,” p. 16.

[15] Randall R. Beger, “Expansion of Police Power in Public Schools and the Vanishing Rights of Students,” Social Justice 29:1 (2002), p. 120.

[16] Victor M. Rios, “The Hypercriminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” in Racializing Justice, Disenfranchising Lives, ed. Marable, Steinberg, and Middlemass, pp. 40-54.

[17] For a superb analysis of urban marginality of youth in the United States and France, see Loic Wacquant, “Urban Outcasts” (London: Polity, 2008).

[18] Children’s Defense Fund. “America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund, 2007. p. 77.

[19] There are an increasing number of groups fighting the growing school-to-prison pipeline, including the crucial work being done by the Children’s Defense Fund under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman and labor organizers such as Manuel Criollo, who works with the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, California, to end the destruction of the social welfare state and rise of a prison, punishment and incarceration state. Under an initiative called the Community Rights Campaign, he and the Center are working with groups in California and in other states to end the school-to-prison pipeline and promote the broad work of educational justice. Their current campaign theme is called “Not down with the Lock Down” and their demands include:

  • Decriminalize Truancy – End Truancy Tickets for Tardiness or as a Discipline Measure. (truancy in LA and around the country is the heightened “broken window” policy – to curb daytime “crime” by busting tardiness and truancy).
  • End School Administration Collaboration with the Gang Database – End Racist Profiling in Schools.
  • End Zero Tolerance & Police Repression In Our Schools and Communities.
  • Youth Mentors and Support Programs, Not Probation.
  • Peer Conflict Mediation not “Police Coercive Manipulation.”
  • Fully Fund Programs That Provide Culturally Relevant Support Services for Students of Color.