American Schools as ‘Punishment Laboratories’

07 Jan in
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By Mariame Kaba, Project NIA

Punishment is now the driving force in American society.  How else can one explain the fact that over 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails and that over 90,000 youth are locked up on any given day in the U.S.?  Our culture’s insatiable appetite to punish certain groups of people has not escaped our schools.  If anything, schools across the U.S. have become what I call "punishment laboratories."

Who would believe that in 2010 children were still being paddled in American schools? It would perhaps not surprise you to find that in one particular district in Mississippi 75 percent of students paddled are male and that black students are paddled at disproportionate rates.

“In DeSoto County last year, black students, at 53 percent of the total number of corporal punishment incidents, were the largest population involved, followed by white students at 39 percent. White students made up 65 percent of the district’s students with black students at 28 percent.”

In Georgia, Jonathan King’s parents are on a crusade to change the practice of placing students in solitary confinement.

 “Don King didn't have a clue his son, Jonathan, was being put in a seclusion cell at school for hours because of bad behavior — until the 13-year-old hanged himself while in 'time out.'

Now, King and his wife, Tina, are pushing state education officials to pass a policy banning the use of solitary confinement in Georgia schools, which they say led directly to their son's death in 2004.”

Six years after Jonathan King’s suicide, Georgia still has no official guidelines for subjecting students to seclusion or restraint — and neither do many other states. How is it possible that we haven’t come to a national consensus that putting a 13 year old in a "seclusion" room for hours at a time while he is supposed to be getting an education is inhumane and barbaric?

Elsewhere in Georgia, the Gwinnett County school board recently approved a new policy authorizing “police officers to use force when necessary to keep campuses safe and students from misbehaving."

In Birmingham, Alabama, a lawsuit was recently filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleging that multiple teenage students were “maced or pepper sprayed for offenses as minor as observing a fight, talking back to an authority figure or smoking a cigarette."

In New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) recently filed a lawsuit claiming that a 15 year old high school student’s civil rights were violated when the police used a taser gun on him on a school bus.  The young man is still suffering the psychological and physical consequences of this incident.

Taken together, these examples paint a portrait of youth under siege in their own schools.  These incidents illustrate that many youth are increasingly subject to policies and practices suggesting that they are perceived as criminals-in-training.  This is a form of social violence that must be confronted.  How should we do this? 

Thankfully, there are already many individuals and organizations across the country that are actively addressing the issues that have been raised in this blog post. I would like to particularly highlight the recent success in New York City in passing the Student Safety Act.  On Christmas Eve, the New York Times devoted an editorial to this new law.

Under the Student Safety Act, which takes effect in 90 days, the New York Police Department’s school security division will be required to provide clear and comprehensive data that show how many students are arrested or issued summonses at school and why. School officials will also have to provide similarly detailed information on suspensions.”

This is a major advance towards ensuring some accountability for school safety officers in New York City.  Hopefully legislatures across the country will follow New York City’s lead and make information and data about the use of harsh disciplinary policies and practices in their schools public.  We cannot confront the problems engendered by these policies without having accurate and timely data.

Passage of the Student Safety Act is the result of years of organizing by the New York Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of New York-based community groups. More background about this issue can be found here:

Finally, there is no way that any of these issues will be solved without the committed and engaged leadership of students themselves.  After all, they are the targets of these unjust and violent policies.  Their voices should be privileged in the struggle to dismantle these practices.  In October 2010, a group of dedicated youth activists in Chicago offered their diagnoses and solutions for addressing the school to prison pipeline.  If you care about justice and about young people’s well-being, take an hour of your time to listen to these young activists’ voices. I guarantee you that you will be inspired and mobilized to act. 

Happy New Year to all!