October and early November are generally considered the most intense portion of the school year for teachers and students alike, particularly in the United States. This time period is characterized by an excess of standardized tests, midterms, and heavy front-loading of class materials that will be referenced for the remainder of the school year (to which there is no end in sight). There are very few breaks or holidays, so everyone is stressed and under-rested.
So, in commemoration of this “stress month” in school, there will be no guest entry for Teaching Resistance in the November 2015 issue of MRR – we will get back to our regular revolving author format next month. I do, however, have some thoughts on a current education-related issue that you might want to look more deeply into if you are a radical educator, student, or just someone interested in what happens (and why) in our schools.
Just about everyone in the U.S., and probably much of the world, has seen the video of a black, female-identified student in a South Carolina high school being beaten and dragged from her seat by a white cop who works at the school. The reason for this abuse of the student's civil and human rights has been cited as her being “disruptive” by refusing to relinquish her cell phone to the teacher, then refusing an order to leave class with the cop. The student's removal by force was welcomed and approved of by the teacher and school administration.
While this individual case is thoroughly and obviously fucked on about ten thousand levels, it is far from isolated, and undocumented versions of incidents like this happen to young black and brown students on a daily basis in many public schools across the United States. The core problem is racism, and there are specific structures of racist/white supremacist oppression embedded in modern public school disciplinary procedures that guarantee this situation will endlessly repeat itself unless things fundamentally change, from the institutional level to one-on-one communications in the classroom.
Let's get started with the obvious: Cops do not belong in schools, period. In fact, as radical educators (particularly in schools with high proportions of socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color), we should be doing everything in our power to insulate and protect our students from contact with police and the punitive, oppressive institutions they represent. Just about any contact with police becomes inevitably toxic for these students, begins a downward cycle into the modern slavery of incarceration, and often ends up being fatal. If we do nothing, the school-to-prison pipeline will only widen and suck more young black and brown people into its hungry maw.
Obviously, structural racism has been a constant in our institutions (including the schools), but how did we get to the specific, hyper-punitive point we are at? When did schools just become just an extension of the police state? Cops are only posted to active duty in urban (and low-income suburban) schools because of a lingering “law and order”-promoting Faustian bargain made between mainstream liberals and conservatives dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s. This was a time when the drug war and middle-class hysteria about teenage gang violence were at a fever pitch. Highly-punitive, often racist legal approaches - mandatory minimum sentencing, increased criminalization of drug addicts, disparate law enforcement/sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine, heightened profiling and mass round-ups of black and brown “gang members”, privatization of prisons, etc. - created a hostile new legal environment with dozens of nasty traps set primarily to ensnare young people of color.
During the peak of this hysteria, teens were widely tried in court as adults for the first time, setting the stage for entire lifetimes of total marginalization and slave-labor exploitation (yes, prison labor is slavery). Schools filled their halls with cops, metal detectors, and “zero tolerance” policies that resulted in countless arrests over minor (primarily drug-based) infractions - despite the fact that the vast majority of serious violence between students, particularly that involving weapons, occurred off-campus and away from the purview of these campus cops. Meanwhile, the gangs, which often provided the most potent social cohesion and sense of empowerment that many poor students of color had, eventually came to a state of relative peace with each other and ceased open warfare in most major U.S. regions (with a few notable exceptions).
This slowdown in organized gang violence combined with grassroots community building efforts, macroeconomic changes, and other factors to drastically reduce street violence in impacted communities. The decrease in overall violence in and around these communities was either ignored by by policymakers or erroneously credited to an increasingly militarized police presence and “zero tolerance” policies (including longer-term incarceration of young teens), which served mainly to increase tensions and make things markedly worse in many ways. Experts on the subject tend to agree that the constant presence of cops in urban+low-income suburban schools had little or no positive effect on those particular environments, and the involvement of law enforcement in many non-serious on-campus infractions has in fact had a very distinct negative impact that is reflected in a vast increase in the lifelong criminalization of young black and brown people (Na and Gottfriedson 2011, Heitzig 2009, etc.). We now must wrangle with the multigenerational fallout from this unprecedented widening of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Meanwhile, highly-publicized mass school shootings in rural areas and exurbs (well-off, predominantly white suburbs) like Columbine contributed to a lingering public acceptance for continuing and even increasing the armed police presence in urban (and low-income suburban) public schools. This is despite the fact that these heinous mass shootings were almost exclusively perpetrated by young white males and took (and still take) place in schools with predominantly white populations – schools which rarely have any consistent police presence on campus.
Fear and racial prejudice continue to drive support for punitive approaches in schools today, from parents, administrators, politicians, and others. Sadly, these approaches are also supported by many teachers, who have either bought into white-supremacist narratives, have been bamboozled by harsh “discipline” policies that just make us into cops ourselves, or are simply overwhelmed and poorly-trained in deescalation, empathetic communication, and restorative justice techniques. With countless resources available for these non-punitive techniques online, in print, and through direct training seminars, teachers and counselors should not only familiarize themselves thoroughly with them but be ready to openly agitate and fight for their implementation and full support at the district level and higher.
As teachers, WE need to push for a paradigm shift in schools. We need to leave behind the lazy cop out of oppressive violence we perpetrate by pushing the big, shiny red panic button and call police in to handle problems that could be handled in a better way. We need to get rid of the cops in our classrooms AND in our heads. We need to fight to change the entire system from a punitive model to a healing/restorative model, and we need to say COPS OUT of our schools! --John No, Teaching Resistance Editor