The Criminalization of Schooling

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the constant stream of articles that wash over us from an ever-expanding number of publications, a few stand out. One of them is an article published this morning by The Wall Street Journal. The subject was the increasing tendency for schools to bring in the police for incidents that most of us over 30 or certainly 40 would think of as things schools handle with detention or suspension or one of the other tools we associate with school discipline.

Here are some examples from the piece …

Stephen Perry, now 18 years old, was trying to avoid a water balloon fight in 2013 when he was swept up by police at his Wake County, N.C., high school; he revealed he had a small pocketknife and was charged with weapons possession. Rashe France was a 12-year-old seventh-grader when he was arrested in Southaven, Miss., charged with disturbing the peace on school property after a minor hallway altercation.

In Texas, a student got a misdemeanor ticket for wearing too much perfume. In Wisconsin, a teen was charged with theft after sharing the chicken nuggets from a classmate’s meal—the classmate was on lunch assistance and sharing it meant the teen had violated the law, authorities said. In Florida, a student conducted a science experiment before the authorization of her teacher; when it went awry she received a felony weapons charge.

Some of this stuff would genuinely be funny if it weren’t real and if it weren’t for the disrupted and in some cases permanently damaged lives.

We’ve talked a lot about the militarization of policing. This is probably best termed the criminalizing or policifying of school. But the roots of the transition and all the different cultural forces seem similar or perhaps identical, just playing out in different ways in a slightly different context.

As the Journal article explains the trend started in the fifties but less as an effort to stiffen discipline as to introduce students to police – police as good guys. Things began to change in the 1980s with the acceleration of the drug war. And they ramped up again in the 90s with various zero tolerance policies on weapons and various kinds of misbehavior – sometimes tied to gang violence. The map is very similar to what happened in the society at large. As in the society at large, the violent crime rate – particularly the murder rate – peaked in the late 80s and early 90s. And just as the wave was beginning its long downward slope popular pressure create a variety of new and often draconian laws which led the prison population to explode.

Law and order advocates often say, well, of course it did. Locking a lot of people up is the cause of the diminishing crime rate over the last generation. I would say that I think very few criminologists believe this anymore. And even for those who do many now many believe that the incarceration rate has gotten so high that it’s actually counter-productive in terms of community and family disruption causing more criminality than locking people up. As I’ve written here at other points, I believe the epochal drop in crime since the early 90s had relatively little connection to tough on crime policies in ‘tough on crime’ policies at the state and federal level. I think we simply don’t know, though I’ve been more and more open to the hypothesis that lead was a key driver of the late 20th century crime boom.

However that may be, we now have a system in which lots of kids end up in the hands of police for things that seem to be obviously things schools should handle on their own – as part of the socialization process that is a key aspect of the school system – rather than calling in the cops. As with the militarization of policing, the trend falls disproportionately and hardest on blacks and other minorities. But it’s notable that it is not restricted to non-whites. It’s general.

Two things strike me about this trend in schooling.

The first is that anyone who is critical of hyper-policing and its partner over-incarceration needs to understand that the crime wave of the mid-late 20th century was real. See the charts here. The irony is that the most draconian policies were put in place just as the wave was subsiding. I think the reaction was misguided. But we can’t understand the social or historical questions without recognizing that crime – particularly violent crime – seem to be rising inexorably. And a public reaction to that, of some sort, was almost inevitable. The question now is how we unwind it.

The other point may be a more tenuous connection. But I am not sure these trends can be separated from the other trends in American society over the last few decades. We know the old saw that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And we see this pattern in the increasing size and prominence of the Pentagon over the Department of State – in part since the Second World War but especially since the end of the Cold War.

Whatever one thinks of US national security policy, wars and all the rest, I increasingly think it is a fascinating thought problem to say, ‘How would we or could we react to [Crisis X] if we simply didn’t have a military that could strike with great lethality basically anywhere on the globe.’ Again, whatever your views of national security policy it’s a fascinating and often illuminating thought problem. Syria? ISIS? Ukraine? Those islands in the South China Sea. Of course, to paraphrase Ella Fitzgerald, in many ways, it’s just better to be a strong country than a weak one. But an over-reliance on force brings its own problems.

And I could not help connecting this reality to what I was reading this morning about the criminalization of what many of us probably think of as the usual errors and learning experiences of growing up.

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