PRIMED FOR PRISON: How Retributive Discipline Policies Criminalize Black Students in Resegregated Am
This was a 30-page white paper I wrote for my final project in Dr. Mary Givens' Education Policy class. This literature review analyzes causes of the school-to-prison pipeline through critical race theory and mixed mediums such as personal narratives, memoirs, movies and newspaper articles.
You can view the pdf here, or read the transcript below.
Rooted in Central High School’s rebirth is a story that is echoed around the nation: in both apartheid (99 percent minority) and “desegregated” schools, Black students are primed for prison. Through this particular priming, created by those with the power to produce fictions about Black life, a prophecy is perpetuated, resisted, yet ultimately fulfilled by the survival of modern-day discipline policies. White bias, tracking, isolation, and unwelcoming school environments thus become “social texts” in a curriculum that prepares Black students for careers as purported “criminals.” It is the position of this white paper to first illustrate the causes of the “school-to-prison pipeline” through the lens of critical race theory, exploring the psychological, social, physical, and environmental factors that affect Black students in re-segregated America. Only after these factors are fleshed out can we apply this same lens to recommendations going forward.
In Tuscaloosa, local news has created a false narrative, allowing numbers – not experiences – to speak for students at Central High School. The school serves the city’s West End, a majority-Black and low-income area isolated by a set of train tracks, where, every six years, it grits its teeth as Annual Progress Reports deem it a “failing school.” But, according to national news reports and a recent study by Jerry Rosiek and Kathy Kinslow, things didn’t always used to be this way. In the days of desegregation, the Central Falcons were a source of pride throughout the district. Academic and athletic achievements were likened to those of Hoover High School, now one of the state’s top performers. In the late 90s, though, the system gained “unitary status,” which meant that former desegregation mandates set by Brown would be lifted, as the school had proved it could handle “integration.” In 2003, the city’s sole public high school, which had educated Black and White students since 1978, split up into “three neighborhood schools” after a series of backroom deals, protests for local control, and an enduring threat of white flight. Now, the school’s namesake has a much different reputation, and, unfortunately, the “new” Central still faces the effects of its stigmatization as nothing more and nothing less than a “Black, failing” school.
While Central’s students are capable of telling their own stories, a kind of dissonance abounds when these stories are translated by White media, which often seeks to quantify instead of qualify experience (Konopak). Inevitably, stories of Black failure trump stories of Black achievement, and the effects of these selective stories were mapped in Rosiek’s and Kinslow’s Resegregation as Curriculum. While its desegregated sister schools were being built in their respective zones, the funding allocated to the new Central was put on hold as community members debated what it meant to be a “neighborhood” school. Though some were still split on the issue, many West Side residents urged the Board of Education to move their students to the original, “Central” location, rather than keeping them in their current spot: the site of the city’s pre-Brown, all-Black high school. In 2004, after facing resistance from a majority-White school board, 200 Central students walked out of their classroom, holding signs that said, “We Want Our School” (Rosiek 2). While Central’s students viewed this protest as a simple exercise of their First Amendment rights, distant spectators spoke of and recorded the event with a particular image in mind – a carelessly crafted image of Black violence that is continually replicated in local news.
During resegregation, concerns of violence in Tuscaloosa’s West Side have been blatantly stated in editorials and opinion pieces by these distant spectators. One letter to the editor, written by resident Evelyn Channell in 2003, responded to news of planned boycotts on behalf of Central High School. “Seems as if Mr. Steele is advocating a return to those days but only with more violence than was seen back then,” she says, referencing a statement “Mr. Steele” had made about protesting 1960’s-style. Yet, while these kinds of editorials have been rebutted by West-Side residents (who often cited that Central had lower disciplinary rates than the other schools), the original concerns of Black delinquency were legitimized by local education reporters. One 2003 story glorified the installment of police officers in West-Side schools, where claims of “good relationships with students” were not challenged (Wortham). Another story, in remembrance of the Columbine incident, misconstrued a message made clear by researchers like Rosiek, who note that most school shootings have happened in re-segregated, all-White schools. Instead, the story voiced repeated concerns of widespread violence in Tuscaloosa’ semi-urban, majority-Black schools. “It can happen anywhere,” superintendent Joyce Levey is quoted, who continued to attribute the implementation of surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and resource officers to the scars left by a distant Columbine. These combined reports, stemming from concerns about Central, made a sweeping statement about race in Tuscaloosa.
But while local news was married to the myth of Black violence, Central’s sister schools, which were also majority-minority but regarded as the city’s “White” schools (especially Northridge High School), received little coverage for their own crimes. And the West-Side community knew this. Alluding to a news report of a fight that broke out during a basketball game hosted by Central, Rosiek states on page 41: “…the story was reported in the newspaper as part of globalized concerns about discipline at Union [Central] High. However, when a sexual assault happened at the Northbrook [Northridge] campus, no such globalized concerns about discipline issues at Northbrook [Northridge] High were mentioned by the news media.” What’s more, while the names of high-achieving Northridge and Bryant students appeared in the news at the end of grading sessions, Central students with high GPAs never saw theirs (school volunteers were required to send these names to reporters, and Central, lacking resources, did not have one). Examples of Black achievement exist when told candidly by Central’s students, yet the Habitat builds, the voter registrations, and other efforts by Central students to serve their community have not received as much coverage as the graduation rates, the AYP reports, and the scuffles on the basketball court. This coupling, then, of perceived Black failure and perceived Black violence has been and continues to be carelessly perpetuated in floundering local newsrooms, where racist messages are packaged and distributed throughout the Tuscaloosa community.
It is clear, given by the histories of Central’s sister schools, that the reputations of “White” institutions have a certain degree of resiliency. Meanwhile, the stories of Central are hardened in the minds of Tuscaloosa’s residents, where the school stands as a symbol of Blackness. “Union was not being framed as violent just because the school was located near several public housing projects. It was regarded as violent and unsafe because it was an all-Black school, and Black students were assumed to be more violent,” Rosiek comments on page 103. By transferring the stigmatization of Central High onto Black students as a whole, Rosiek moves the conversation of re-segregation forward. Here, he hints at the hidden stories of Northridge and Bryant – stories foreseen by a Black school board member, when he commented “he was more concerned about the welfare of Black students at Northbrook [Northridge] than at the new, racially isolated Union [Central] High” (Rosiek 47). By investigating the environments at schools like Northridge High School, specifically in regards to the experiences of Black students, the remainder of this paper will show that this school board member had cause to be concerned.
Psychological Effects of Desegregation
As Rosiek and Kinslow argue, school re-segregation in Tuscaloosa affected all students in the system. While the negative racial stigma that surrounded Central High School was not present at Northridge, the “desegregated” school’s Black students faced arguably worse obstacles than their counterparts at Central. In “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” Dr. Beverly Tatum describes several psychological factors that lead to racial consciousness, or the absence thereof, in Black and White students. For most students, Tatum says, early adolescence coincides with a heightened sense of self, and for Black students especially, that sense of self is partially constituted by their positioning as the “Other” in a Black-White binary. Although the process may take longer for some students, children of color, or children exploring their ethnic identities, typically enter the “encounter stage” in middle school. This stage, Tatum says, is “typically precipitated by an event or series of events that force the young person to acknowledge the personal impact of racism” (Tatum 55). While age is an important indicator of development, Tatum argues that environment is also instrumental in the student’s budding racial consciousness.
In integrated schools, where Black students are exploring identity alongside White students, racial identity becomes more prevalent. Tatum details how “environmental cues” may or may not “trigger an examination of racial identity” in places like Northridge, where Black students may feel like “outsiders” in a school formerly regarded, or framed, as “White” (Rosiek 47). In Double-Consciousness and the Veil, W.E.B Du Bois describes this phenomenon. Black individuals, Du Bois states, live in “a world which yields him [or her] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him [or her] see himself [or herself] through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois 179). As stated earlier, schools framed as “White” are done so by making all-Black schools their “Other.” Even when a “White” school is not an apartheid school, and even when its population is majority-Black, it is shielded from the contrived, often negative reputations of all-Black schools like Central. However, Black students in “White” schools are not immune to these messages unjustly created about Blackness. While faced with these enduring racial messages, Black students must adopt a “double-consciousness” to survive. In “White” schools, Black students face what Du Bois calls the “unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals” (Du Bois 179). In a “desegregated” school, these ideals are 1.) racial identity and 2.) the dominant, “White” identity of the school.
As puberty marks a period of racial questioning for Black students, White students do not usually think of their identity in racial terms. Tatum cites a study of eighth graders from an integrated middle school, stating that “more than a third had thought about the effects of ethnicity on their future,” concluding that, while White students “were beginning to think about ethnic identity, there was evidence to suggest a more active search among Black students” (Tatum 56). The exploration of self that occurs naturally during puberty, therefore, is different for Black and White students. Over time, the environments of integrated schools can reinforce already-formed ideas about Blackness in the minds of both Black and White students, where they are left to either resist or internalize negative stigmas. By the time these students reach high school, the identities of authority figures, the pervasiveness of racial tracking, and the symbolism of punitive policies remind Black students that they are not wanted in these schools.
White Administrative Bias
Harping on the idea of double-consciousness, Tatum defines what she calls an “oppositional identity” to pre-existing notions of Black failure and Black violence. Before desegregation, Black students could look up to Black teachers and administrators as models of success. This created, in the pre-Brown era, a group identity oppositional to that of today: While stigmas surrounding schools like Central allow messages of Black failure and Black violence to pervade the minds of both Black and White community members, messages of success were adopted in segregated Black schools.
Moreover, these messages of Black success were reinforced in curriculum, where Black students learned of the legacy of Black leadership and Black educational success, and they could see that legacy lived by those in positions of power. This association between Blackness and education is illustrated in a retort by a “successful Black student” cited by Tatum, where he says, “Martin Luther King must not have been Black, then, since he had a doctoral degree, and Malcolm X must not have been Black since he educated himself while in prison” (Tatum 64). By alluding to a legacy of Black excellence, the student adopts Tatum’s “oppositional identity.” However, the nature of his retort hints at a growing disassociation between Blackness and an array of positive traits such as excellence, education, leadership, and success in the minds of the White students he was speaking of.
Now, in both apartheid and “desegregated” schools, positive messages of Blackness are harder to come by, and part of that has to do with the absence of pro-Black leadership. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, 80 percent of public school principals in 2012 were White. And that percentage, as journalist Melinda Anderson points out, has “barely budged” since the late 80s. In schools like Northridge, Tatum describes how this fact may be unsettling to Black students, referring again to the remaining traces of a pre-Brown “oppositional identity.” “While Black people may have publicly deferred to Whites, they actively encouraged their children to pursue education as a ticket to greater freedom,” she says. “In today’s desegregated schools the models of success are almost always White” (Tatum 64-5). With White leadership, then, comes the introduction of a White power structure, where Black students are not only bereft of Black role models, but they become aware of their own positioning as subordinates in a system controlled by Whites.
In his dissertation on the possibilities of “Re-Inventing the Public Sphere,” John Pace Konopak discusses the nature of an administration. While he focuses on the relationship between “pedagogy and the press,” his comments on discipline, power, and cultural suppression are universal: “School officialdom frequently has suppressed even the tamest exercises of journalistic enterprise, judging them to be inimical to the interests of good order and discipline within the rigidly bureaucratized environment of the contemporary American school,” Konopak says on page 72. Here, he suggests that bureaucracy, by nature, likes discipline and order, and that those in positions of power will strive to keep those values alive. He goes on to say that discipline, “a function and a prerequisite of power” (Konopak 166), aims to produce “docile, willing subjects/objects as cannon fodder for the advance of its technological rationality” (Konopak 165). To discipline a student, then, is to submit them to a defined order, and in public schools, that kind of order is usually determined and enforced by a leader who does not share the same experiences as the student.
“Rationality,” as Konopak refers, is a theory of education that focuses on the efficiency of the institution. This kind of thought is common in environments that operate under strict, orderly conditions, where discipline enables administrators to run schools like a business. In this business, students are monolithic products, or pawns used to achieve specific goals (Heck). In efforts to achieve order, the cultural and psychological needs of students, and especially Black students, are not always addressed. Or worse, these needs are viewed as “problems,” as “hiccups” in a well-oiled machine, leaving administrators to respond negatively. In “Where Are All the Principals of Color,” Anderson points out that with White leadership often comes White bias, where pre-conceptions of Black failure and Black violence inform widespread values and policies. In 80 percent of public schools, White administrators have the power to define and enforce these values, as well as to lay judgement on the students they affect. The combination, then, of already-defined power structures, the commoditization of students, and unchecked racial privilege can be dangerous. In the following example, I will use Northridge as a case study of such bias.
A New Principal at Northridge High School
In 2013, Northridge’s school newspaper featured the school’s new principal, a White man, in their September issue. It may be added that this principal, according to the account of a retired teacher, did not go through the traditional hiring process, as he was “buddies” with the school’s former principal, who was also White. The school board had already established strict dress code policies, where prohibitions of “short” skirts, sleeveless tops, sagging, and clothes with ambiguously stated “offensive language” targeted female students and Black students. However, students on the newspaper staff, many of whom were White and immune to Tatum’s “encounter stage,” found it difficult to report on these policies, as well as the intricate White power structures that governed their schools. In their interviews with the school’s new principal, though, evidence of already-existent White bias is shown through his rhetoric.
While Central was framed as a “violent” school, Northridge saw over twelve fights in the year prior to this issue. While local news danced around this fact, the new principal was warned of violence upon arrival. Coming from a school with similar demographics, he had several methods in mind. One such policy was the “3-30 Rule,” which meant that students (both perpetrators and victims) involved in violence such as fights would be suspended for three days and placed in In School Intervention (ISI) for a month. In two articles detailing this policy, though, the new principal makes both contradictory claims as well as problematic statements about race and class.
In one, he acknowledged the fact that “when students spend less time in trouble, they learn more in class.” However, he failed to acknowledge that his policy, while intended to keep students from fighting, would, if enacted, keep both perpetrators and victims out of class for almost a month. Next, he compared himself, the enforcer of the policy, to a police man, using “serve and protect” rhetoric to justify a sense of caution, or fear, that he predicted would be felt by students. Themes of protection and punishment clashed in the image he was trying to create, where he compared students in the hallway to wary drivers, “checking their speedometers” when close to police cars. In addition, this metaphor could be a source of anxiety for Black students, who are confronted with news of racially-charged police violence on a daily basis. A look around the principal’s office, though, revealed that the new principal found punitive policies humorous instead of something to be wary of. On his desk sat a ceramic piggy bank. On it, the words “Ashes of Problem Students” were engraved.
A photo of this piggy bank was displayed on another article, which detailed the philosophy behind the principal’s general approach to discipline. This approach had worked in his previous school, he claimed, where 68 percent of the student body lived below the poverty line. “You can’t use poverty as an excuse not to achieve,” the new principal said, citing a 90 percent graduation rate following the implementation of his “3-30” policy. While this statement of using “poverty as an excuse” is echoed in conservative talking points, the principal failed to indicate other factors of success aside from graduation rates. “Our main points of focus are discipline, attendance, and academics,” he continued, privileging discipline over instruction time and justifying that undefined academic success would naturally “follow” in an orderly environment. In a final statement, he alluded to a rational approach: “You can’t go to work and fight. You can’t go to work and disrespect your boss. You can’t not go to work. This is work. Your bosses are your teachers and your credits are your paycheck.” In other words, students must know their place in the bureaucratic ladder, where those at the top are disproportionately White and male, and they must not fall out of line.
While this news was available to all students, a poll conducted prior to publication hinted at an initial distrust of the “3-30” policy. Fifty students were asked if they agreed with the policy, of which they had minimal critical information about, and 26 students said “No.” This number is significant, because, although the poll indicated a near-split on the issue, it is likely that previous information about the policy was positive, as prior information came from school officials and was not critiqued by the local news. It is clear, here, that a growing skepticism of White authority was alive and well at Northridge High School.
Later, comments would be made by the same retired teacher about racist and homophobic language used in faculty meetings. The teacher, who had come out as a lesbian to her fellow faculty members, cited several instances of intimidation on behalf of the new principal, including ill-timed “visits” to her classroom, last-minute “requests,” and failure to respond to ostracizing comments from other teachers. A Black teacher down the hallway, who this teacher had befriended, voiced similar concerns about racial insensitivity. During Black History Month, the principal butchered the names of Black historical leaders as he monotonously recited a pre-written script over the intercom. Moreover, this “tradition,” of sorts, took place every morning before the pledge of allegiance, when some students would be bustling into classrooms, often failing to quell their early-morning chatter. When the first teacher expressed her frustrations to her friend down the hallway, she noted her reaction. The Black teacher began to tear up, saying to her, “I thought no one would ever notice.”
In 2015, news began to spread of a potential rezoning plan. Already a sensitive issue, Black students began to voice their concerns in the school newspaper, stating things like, “I think that it is not fair moving away from the majority of people you grew up with from kindergarten” (Mazumdar). The Southview area, a majority-Black area that had previously bused students to Northridge to balance the school’s demographics, was now zoned for Bryant, whose population was about 80 percent minority at the time. According to the retired teacher, the principal rejoiced at the prospect of the school’s changing demographics. In a staff meeting, he said, “300 of our worst students are moving to Bryant.” Worst, in his mind, meaning Black.
This kind of rhetoric, though, is not uncommon., and, more peculiarly, this kind of rhetoric is not always to confined to White administrators. In his book “Savage Inequalities,” Jonathan Kozol tells the stories of American school children. Set from the late 60’s to the early 90’s, Kozol’s story maps the experiences of students in “de-segregated” as well as apartheid Black and White schools. On page 162, he tells the story of Joe Clark, a Black principal who made the Northridge principal’s dream come true. A 1988 cover of Time magazine glorified the administrator for throwing out 300 students at East Side High. Clark, Kozol said, “walked the hallways with a bullhorn and a bat… you would have thought he was the warden of a jail.” While this story may blur previous claims made about White authority, it is important to note that Clark was revered by White officials as well as George H. W. Bush and Education Secretary William Bennett, who called the school a “mecca of education” (Kozol 162). Kozol quotes a school official who explains this phenomenon, suggesting that racist administrative power is utilized by both White principals and anti-Black principals of color: “Find black principals who don’t identify with civil rights concerns but are prepared to whip black children into line,” the official said (Kozol 162-3). When replaced, Clark’s soft-on-discipline successor used his newfound power for good, abandoning the bat and speaking in a tongue that was distinctly pro-Black. “He is less inclined to blame the students for the consequences of their poverty and racial isolation,” Kozol says on page 163. “He would like to see a new school building and would like to hire many more school counselors and outreach workers.” The new principal had clear reasoning behind this proactive approach, and his reasoning stems from the effects of harsh discipline seen in the age of Joe Clark. “Children drop out in elementary school,” he said. “They simply formalize that process here.”
Isolation as Resegregation
The new principal at East Side High hinted at an underreported occurrence in schools with no-tolerance discipline policies. A common practice in these schools, he said, is to “throw out the kids who cause you trouble.” Two-thirds of the students Clark threw out were in the local jail, he said. However, in their rush to glorify anti-Black authority, news reports failed to ask important questions. Questions like: “Where do you put these kids once they’re expelled?” The answer, as the new principal stated, would be, “You build more prisons” (Kozol 163). In Tuscaloosa, local news reports failed to ask those questions as well, but the story of Joe Clark tells us that Northridge’s “3-30” policy would have the same effects – except students would be placed in ISI instead of Tuscaloosa County Jail.
However, ISI was not an environment conducive to learning. According to the account of a former student, students in ISI were discouraged from talking, given piles of “busywork,” and were forced to miss instructional time. The room, placed at the end of a hallway, was often regarded as a place for napping. The student, a White female in majority-Black “regular” classes, also noted that many of the students from her stint in ISI were in fact classmates of hers. When Northridge’s new principal referred to “300 of his worst kids,” he meant those in ISI and in their respective regular classes, most of which, due to internal segregation, were Black.
Internal segregation, or “academic tracking,” takes place as early as elementary school, when students have the option to be placed in “gifted” programs. Placement, however, is often at the discretion of the teacher. A study by the National Education Foundation calls these groups – the gifted and the regular – by the names “Bluebird and Redbird,” labels that stick with students throughout their educational careers. By the time they reach high school, the labels “Bluebird and Redbird” are usually replaced by respective assignments to “College Preparatory” or “Vocational” classes (“Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping”). But tracking, as it’s revealed in the story of Northridge, has a segregating effect not limited to learning styles. Opponents of the practice, according to the NEF report, “contend that ability grouping not only fails to benefit any student, but it also channels poor and minority students to low tracks where they receive a lower quality of instruction than other groups.” The disproportionate amount of Black students in “regular” classes – classes that often juggle students back and forth from ISI – thus becomes an overwhelming environmental cue received by Black and White students.
As Tatum stated earlier, these environmental cues usually become apparent as early as middle school. “There is usually a recognizable racial pattern to how children are assigned,” she says, which “sends a message about what it means to be Black” (Tatum 55). Ability status is then interpreted in many ways by Black students. In segregated, underfunded Camden High School, Kozol quotes the school’s principal, who alludes to the practices of Joe Clark:
“These little children cry out to be cared for. Half the population of this city is 20 years old or less. Seven in ten grow up in poverty… There is that notion out there… that the fate of all these children is determined from their birth. If they fail, it’s something in themselves. That, I believe, is why Joe Clark got so much praise from the white media. ‘If they’re failing, kick ‘em out!’ My heart goes out to children in this city. I’ve worked in upper-middle-class suburban schools. I know the difference” (Kozol 142).
She goes on to state that even in her school of few White students, tracking has negative effects: “We don’t call it tracking, no. But tell me that the children in Math I or in Math VI don’t know why they are there” (Kozol 144). In places like Northridge, though, these divisions are made clearer. As Sarah Thuesen comments in her book Greater Than Equal, the beginning of desegregation often meant “social isolation” for Black students entering White schools. While she speaks specifically of lunchroom scenarios, where handfuls of Black students were often isolated and ostracized by their peers, a statement she makes can be applied to more modern practices of ability tracking. “You are still segregated in this integrated school,” she says (Theusen 228). As stated crudely by a Black teacher at Camden High, the internalization, and later normalization of segregated classes is also universal, and it has a damaging effect. “Rats packed tight in a cage destroy each other,” he says (Kozol 142).
Environmental Cues, Revisited
The racial patterns created by tracking are obvious to students, both Black and White, and this, as Tatum states, sends a message about what it means to be Black. In some schools, both “desegregated” and apartheid, these messages are intensified by the physical, rather than internal, school environment. Kozol describes an urban, majority-Black school on page 5, where police patrolled hallways behind guarded doors that said things like “DRUG-FREE ZONE.” “It was simply the impression that these urban schools were, by and large, extraordinarily unhappy places,” he says. The jails to which Joe Clark’s students were exiled are almost indistinguishable from the school environments in Kozol’s piece. And, as threats of “safety” rise, these conditions only become worse.
In New York City, handcuffs became a graphic symbol of such criminalization. The city’s Office of School Safety ordered 2,300 pairs for a system of 1,000 schools. Local news, in this case, was drawn to such a symbol and responded: “It is no doubt possible to obtain improvements in discipline and even in test scores and dropout rates by turning schools into disciplinary barracks,” stated an editorial by the New York Observer (Kozol 118). While the press ignored underlying messages of tracking, Kozol notes, the issue of physical environment made matters worse for New York’s Black students. “Add this to the squalor of the setting and the ever-present message of a child’s racial isolation, and we have in place an almost perfect instrument to guarantee that we will need more handcuffs and, no doubt, more prisons,” he says on page 119. Back in Room 109 of Northridge High School, student reporters discuss new “safety” walls installed in the front lobby. Just across the river, at Tuscaloosa Career Tech Academy – a vocational school open to all students in the majority-Black Tuscaloosa city district – students must pass through metal detectors before taking classes in woodshop, animation, or broadcast. In Northridge, officer Darling lives up to his name. However, the school’s installment of three “resource officers” is anything but.
Decades later, the image of the handcuffs, police officers, and metal detectors have not gone away. A White Paper by the ACLU stated that in 2006, 70 percent of public school students reported that police officers or security guards patrol their hallways. Even more alarming is the feeling that policing in public schools is inevitable; while it is evident that the authors are against the idea of policing in the first place, they use their position to instead argue for a more effective way of deploying police officers, many of whom do not operate in an appropriate manner (Kim and Geronimo 5). Meanwhile, reports and viral cell phone videos continue to tell of children, most students of color, harmed at the hands of school resource officers. According to National Center for Education Statistics, 82,000 guards/police officers work are deployed in America’s 84,000 public schools. Emma Brown of The Washington Post quotes Brittany Packnett, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as in St. Louis’ Teach For America office. “The first time a lot of black and brown children experience police violence is in a school building,” Packnett said. “The first place that our children learn to fear police, learn they’re controlled instead of empowered, is in a school building.” In segregated Cincinnati, Kozol documents what perhaps could be a response to this carelessly coded message of Black criminality. Painted in “neat letters” on a wall of an abandoned building are the words “F*** YOU” (Kozol 230).
In schools that practice retributive justice, or policies based on punishment rather than rehabilitation, resistance is inevitable. Among Black students especially, resistance is part of a legacy of the struggle for education, dating back to slavery. Today, resistance lives on, and the symbols of its existence are not limited to graffiti.
While students are typically introduced to the idea of self-consciousness or racial self-consciousness (double-consciousness) in middle school, the student’s ascent into adulthood brings forth new behaviors. In high school, previously encoded racial messages are magnified and, at this point, more difficult to ignore. On page 59, Tatum describes an “escalating emotional thermostat” in individuals whose feelings are continually invalidated. This is common, Tatum says, when students are confronted with racist social responses. When Malcolm X was in school, he told his English teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher responded, “That’s no realistic goal for a n****r” (Tatum 58). “The message was clear,” Tatum says. “You are a Black male, your racial group membership matters, plan accordingly.” In this case, feelings of “anger, confusion, and alienation” would later lead to resistance.
In schools where Black students are tracked, criminalized, and see no way out of the system, this emotional thermostat rises. Physics tells us that when heat rises, material that lay dormant begins to shift and shape. The same happens in schools, when students otherwise complacent begin to resist. On page 26, Tatum “identifies one form of resistance, ‘not-learning,’ demonstrated by targeted students who are too often seen by their dominant teachers as ‘others.’” “To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect your integrity causes a major loss of self,” she says. To preserve that sense of self, then, students resort to behaviors like “not-learning,” which, unfortunately, are likely to land them back in jails like ISI.
What ensues is a self-perpetuating cycle, otherwise known as the school-to-prison pipeline. And, in Alabama, policies don’t say much about what we can do to narrow it. Section 16-1-14 of a state report on school discipline laws stated:
“…teachers may remove, isolate, or separate pupils who create disciplinary problems in any classroom or other school activity and whose presence in the class may be detrimental to the best interest and welfare of the pupils of such class as a whole. Any rules and regulations adopted pursuant to this section shall be approved by the State Board of Education. Any such removal, isolation, or separation may not deprive such pupils of their full right to an equal and adequate education.”
It is made clear at the end of this section that disruptive students deserve the right to an education as well, but, while the ideas of “order,” “discipline,” and a “non-disruptive” classroom can be seen throughout the report, this is the only section that depicts equal rights for disciplined students. The legislative findings of Chapter 28A state:
“Teachers are hereby given the authority and responsibility to use appropriate means of discipline up to and including corporal punishment as may be prescribed by the local board of education. So long as teachers follow approved policy in the exercise of their responsibility to maintain discipline in their classroom, such teacher shall be immune from civil or criminal liability.”
These findings establish little legal authority over the rights of student “offenders.” By leaving responsibility to local school boards, arcane practices (as it is stated explicitly in the findings) like corporal punishment have little to no oversight. This kind of laissez-faire, colorblind legislation can have an especially damaging effect on Black students in mixed environments.
Statistics from the Education Research Alliance in Louisiana, a state with similar policies, show up to 20-percent differences in suspension rates of Black students (Figure 2).
This peak occurs as the student is entering the sixth grade, or, as Tatum states, as the student begins to develop a heightened racial consciousness. For all Black students observed, the probability of being suspended is about 12.5 percent higher than that of White students, and the probability of being suspended multiple times is about 8 percent higher (Figure 1). These disparities are noted across districts and within schools, illustrating that Black students in both apartheid and “desegregated” face heightened risks of retributive disciplinary action. But the statistics only say so much. If we’ve learned anything from the story of Central High School, we know that we must listen, first and foremost, to those who are directly affected.
Illustrating The School-To-Prison Pipeline
The racist effects of American public schooling are so salient in the minds of Black – and White – individuals that the issue is often breached on TV screens and popular literature. “Boyz N The Hood,” a 1991 movie directed by John Singleton, tells the story of a group of boys growing up in South Central Los Angeles. In one of the beginning scenes, at an all-Black elementary school, Trey, the braniac of the group, is bullied for his wits. When he claps back, his White teacher punishes him by calling his mother. In the phone call, the teacher assumes that his mother is uneducated and that he has no father. The stereotype of the Black, uneducated delinquent is further challenged in the movie “Dope,” which tells of a Black student in a similar setting that resists his school’s dealers and instead sticks to his books. One day, though, he discovers Bitcoin, and becomes an Internet drug lord. While these movies, and a host of others, push new images of Blackness into mainstream media, they do not do so without addressing the problems perpetuated in the school-to-prison pipeline. “Boyz N the Hood” and “Dope” both send messages of police violence, white power structures, and academic tracking in their “neighborhood” schools.
In her memoir Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward mourns the deaths of five Black men in her life. In each chapter, she weaves between her own upbringing and the factors that led to their deaths, some of which discuss the school-to-prison pipeline. Her childhood friend, Rog, dropped out of school in tenth grade. “It’s not uncommon for young Black men to drop out here,” Ward says on page 26. “Sometimes they are passively forced out by school authorities, branded as misfits or accused of serious offenses like selling drugs or harassing other students: sometimes they are pushed to the back of classrooms and ignored.” Rog died of a cocaine overdose. Ward says he was probably dreaming of living in California, a place he tried to visit after dropping out but did not have the funds to, when he drifted off. C.J., Ward’s cousin, dropped out of high school when he was 17. “I can imagine that he felt ignored and unremarkable in the classroom, yet another body crowding the school,” Ward says on pages 100-111. She continues, perfectly illustrating the pipeline in heartfelt, poignant prose:
“The fact that he was a Black male barely scraping by in his classes meant he was seen as a problem. And the school administration at the time solved the problem of the Black male by practicing a kind of benign neglect. Years later, that benign neglect would turn malignant and would involve illegal strip searches of middle schoolers accused of drug dealing, typing these same students as troublemakers, laying a thick paper trail of imagined or real discipline offenses, and once the paper trail grew thick enough, kicking out the students who endangered the blue-ribbon rating with lackluster grades and test scores.”
C.J. was hit crossing a railroad in a majority-Black area. The community had no funds for warning lights, and the local government did not care to give them any.
While the men in her life, including her brother, attended “desegregated,” majority-Black schools, Jesmyn bounced from school to school, eventually landing in a White private school, where she was subject to endless bullying. On page 192, she converses with herself, wanting to retaliate against her aggressor. In the public school, she notes, she “could always rely on someone else to fight,” like her brother, wo would later “sneak knives and brass knuckles into school to fight White kids who wore rebel flag T-shirts, who initiated confrontations informed by race, by the word n****r hurled like a large rock” (Ward 186). The difference between the types of schools, for Ward, do not lay in the existence of racism, but in the ways in which it manifests. She says on page 208:
“While I faced a kind of blatant, overt, individualized racism at my school that had everything to do with attending school with kids who were White, rich, and privileged in the American South, Joshua faced a different kind of racism, a systemic kind, the kind that made it hard for school administrators and teachers to see past his easygoing charm and lackluster grades and disdain for rigid learning to the person underneath… He was never referred to a counselor, never tested for a learning disorder, never given some sort of individual attention that might better equip him to navigate junior high school and high school. Both my brother and I were coming up against something larger than us, and both of us were flailing against it, looking for a seam, a knob, a doorway, an opening through. And both of us were failing.”
Ward’s brother Josh was killed by a White drunk driver on his way home from the job he hated. He’d taken a detour on a beautiful ocean-side drive; he thought he deserved it.
In Savage Inequalities, Kozol continues to tell the stories of a “man with long blond hair, wearing a white sweat suit swinging a paddle to get children in their chairs” (Kozol 27). He continues to tell stories of kids like Raymond Abbott, a 19-year-old dropout, whose learning disability was “never diagnosed and he was passed on each year from grade to grade.” After his story became one of many in a New Jersey educational inequity case, “Abbot, now a cocaine addict, heard the news of his belated vindication from a small cell in the Camden County Jail” (Kozol 172). And Kozol continues to tell stories of teachers who point to their kindergarten students and say things like, “Eighteen years from now, one of those four may graduate from college, but three of the 12 boys in this kindergarten will already have spent time in prison” (Kozol 45).
At Central, these stories are no different. While covering the school’s IB program, a product of academic tracking in, in this case, a segregated school, students commonly referred to the program as “the bubble.” The message was simple: if you’re outside the bubble, you won’t succeed. So I looked outside the bubble, and in the hallway I came across a student named Jaylon Robertson. I called him up to the principal’s office, and when he saw me, he was surprised – he thought he was in trouble. I asked him what he thought of IB kids, and he said he didn’t really care. He didn’t care about school at all. But he used to. In elementary school, Robertson was in the gifted track and won awards at math competitions. In middle school, he said he ran into family issues, and his “motivation” dropped. At Central, Robertson was in regular classes and said he often refused to participate – an act that landed him in the principal’s office, but only a few times. “I mean, I’m not this bad person!” he said. However, his teachers assumed otherwise, and Robertson was well aware of his differential treatment. “They tend to call people like me crazy or whatever,” he said. “[A teacher], he look at me like I’m some bad guy. Like I just do street stuff… I guess cause of the way I look doesn’t fit. Fit for the way I think or whatever.” Robertson, a senior in 2015, got married a year later and is now a father to a baby boy, Carter.
Pushing for Change: Restorative Justice
It is the position of this white paper to advocate for racially-conscious legislation that works to eliminate these kinds of stories. Proactive measures, like those in line with Barack Obama’s Dear Colleague letter, are steps in the right direction. In his letter, Obama urges school leaders to adopt restorative, rather than retributive, practices. “In their investigations of school discipline, the Departments have noted that the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested,” the letter says. States like Alabama, which have discipline laws lax enough to 1.) allow corporal punishment and 2.) to say nothing about the welfare of disruptive students, must adopt these guidelines set forth by Obama. This would take form in the language of their codes of conduct, where the rights of “offenders” must be outlined at an equal frequency to those of the teacher and of other students, and where the rights of “offenders” are guaranteed regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, etc.
Another recommendation would be to introduce incentives for schools that have shown decreasing recidivism rates in programs like In School Intervention. These incentives would vary from school to school, due to differing school environments. However, administrators who practice rehabilitative methods should be rewarded. While the state must assume more responsibility in local schools, it is also recommended that they begin to reallocate funding from retributive practices (hiring of police officers, installation of metal detectors, etc.) to these kinds of restorative practices. Restorative justice is defined by researchers David Karp and Beau Breslin as programs that “prioritize activities that try to reduce delinquency and find just solutions to delinquent behavior.” In their report “Restorative Justice in School Communities,” Karp and Breslin argue that a “reintegrative response to crime” will “repair, rebuild and enhance bonds or ties between young offenders and their communities.” In restorative justice practices, attention is “equally paid to all stakeholders,” like in the “3-30” policy. However, this attention is given with the intent to “strengthen relationships” (Karp and Breslin). A common practice is the “circle,” where all stakeholders gather around and give their perspective, ask for forgiveness, or be given positive opportunities, like service, to atone for their “crimes” and reinstate themselves as part of the (school) community.
It is important to remember, though, that restorative justice is not a new concept, nor was it a concept originally conceived by White researchers or legislators. In her book Self-Taught, Heather Williams tells of Black classrooms in the pre-Brown era, where popular “flogging plans” were decried by revolutionaries Horace Mann and Walt Whitman, alongside Black teachers and administrators. On page 162, she describes the environment in one of these classrooms, and how order was maintained despite the “inadequacy of the physical spaces”: “…Moral influence of material objects… are more efficacious in preserving order, in calming turbulent spirits and keeping them attuned to the sweeter harmony of love, gentleness and truth, than any instrument of corporal punishment I have ever seen,” says one teacher. While the conditions of Black schools beckoned a kind of chaos, the words of teachers show a remarkable ability to achieve order through “love.”
Now, these ideas are finally making their way into the canon of White political thought, and the effects are telling. Karp and Breslin state that in Sweard Montessori Elementary School, a 27 percent reduction in suspensions and expulsions occurred during the first year of implementing restorative policies. Out-of-school suspensions in Princeton High School and South St. Paul High School almost dropped in half after the second year of a similar project. Qualitative studies, like WestEd.org’s 2016 research review, cite the following outcomes of restorative practices: lower suspension and expulsion rates, fewer major disciplinary incidents in school, improved school climate, and less long-term absenteeism. While restorative methods, fully implemented, are often expensive, the study goes on to say that “well-run restorative programs could save a great deal of money,” connecting a projected decrease in drop-out rates to economic gain.
And, while these kinds of policies can be improved to better transition administrators from permeating “cultures of retribution,” elements of restorative discipline have managed to make it into law, and in states where this has happened, teachers have noticed the benefits. “I can’t end poverty, I can’t end gangs in neighborhoods, but I can understand where kids are coming from, help them recognize what they’re feeling and how to deal with those things…” said fourth-grade teacher Misti Kimmer, who said Dear Colleague helped the school improve after California lawmakers passed a law preventing schools from expelling and suspending students for “willful defiance,” an ambiguous term that is often left up to racially-biased administrators to define. “…If they can function better, then they can stay in school. If they can stay in school and learn, we can eliminate that school-to-prison pipeline” (“Teachers Urge DeVos Not to Scrap School Discipline Rules”).
To draw upon the forces that primed Central High School, and others like it, as a symbol of Blackness, I extend my last recommendation to journalists, researchers, and consumers of literature. The press has a great responsibility, as Konopak says, to overcome its own bureaucratic hurdles and challenge those of other institutions, the school being one. Journalists and researchers should familiarize themselves with the power structures outlined in this white paper and thus ask the right questions. These questions should challenge White and anti-Black authority, allude to less-obvious, less-graphic racial patterns, predict outcomes based on those patterns, and be fashioned in a way that most effectively captures the voice of the student. If local journalists can overcome the pressures of pressing deadlines and their own White governing bodies, they can become a powerful force that will hold similar institutions accountable for a slew of racist policies. The school-to-prison pipeline, therefore, can best be closed by a collaborative effort on behalf of teachers, legislators, and researchers that, first and foremost, can think critically about the racial implications of their actions.
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