The Prison-Educational Complex

Earlier this year I published an essay on alternative education in the magazine n+1 in which I recounted my experience growing up “unschooled” and my transition to a large public high school in Athens, Georgia. In the essay, I don’t sound the alarm to empty all classrooms or burn down the schools. “Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise,” I concluded, “the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted — what I still want, even now, as an adult — is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like.”

I expected the essay to ruffle some ­feathers but was nonetheless surprised by which passages irked certain readers into responding. In passing, I compared schools to prisons and, in the last paragraph, described my high school as “a series of cinder-block holding cells.” This analogy, more than any of the arguments I levied against conventional schooling, deeply annoyed the defenders of traditional pedagogy.

By comparing my public high school to a prison I wasn’t trying to be provocative. Instead, I wanted to convey the shock I felt when I first enrolled, observing the proceedings like a bemused anthropologist, or an alien. The school I attended was in a massive one-story square industrial building. The rooms were uniform and windowless, joyless to an extreme that simply had to be engineered. We were made to follow orders that were arbitrary and demoralizing. (I knew I had to go to the bathroom; why did I have to ask for permission?) More important, the school was crawling with police officers, armed and brusque. Day after day I passed them stationed at main entrances or lurking in the parking lot or lunchroom.

Coming from my background (which, I readily admit, was privileged and bohemian) the constant presence of law enforcement was striking. For the most part, it seemed the teachers and administrators were in charge; they enforced rules, made exceptions, and meted out rewards and punishments. Yet the presence of the men in blue told another, troubling story. A more powerful authority was at work, actually running the place.

Kathleen Nolan’s book Police in the Hallways is a damning portrait of what happens when this more powerful authority becomes dominant. By exhaustively profiling an unnamed Bronx high school — shadowing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators, security guards, and police officers over the course of an academic year — Nolan reveals the worrying ways educative aims have been eroded by a culture of control, the ways learning is superseded by law enforcement.  “An institution that in its early days had purported to serve in loco parentis, taking on some of the functions and responsibilities of parents, appeared instead to have taken on the responsibilities of the criminal-justice system,” she writes. More specifically, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s controversial “quality of life” campaign of aggressively prosecuting squeegee men and turnstile jumpers and the like under the assumption that the punishment of minor infractions will reduce crime overall had been extended into New York City’s struggling public high schools.

The “zero tolerance” order-maintenance model has been enthusiastically embraced by Mayor Bloomberg, but what kind of crime are we talking about when we talk about policing minor infractions in schools? While there are some gang fights and drug dealing, Nolan shows these aren’t the issues that command the most police attention. Instead the sorts of petty incidents that, in the past, would have been mediated by concerned teachers and hall monitors — things like hat wearing, class cutting, talking back or talking too loudly, and not showing ID when asked for it — now fall under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. That is to say, behavioral issues have been reframed as criminal ones.

After carefully examining the school occurrence reports for the year, Nolan found that the majority of arrests and summons were, ultimately, the result of “insubordination” or “disrespect”; in other words, students ignored or resisted officers who told them to take off their hat, hurry up, or show their ID, and the situation escalated from there. These confrontations, which often stem from legitimate frustration at capricious and unaccountable authorities, routinely lead to arrest. (As Nolan shows, some officers appear to publicly humiliate and antagonize students for sport, yet students are expected to react like saints to provocation from their superiors. Taking umbrage is a punishable offense). The “crime” of breaking a school rule — not the law — lands students in court, which, in turn, further derails their academic progress, since they must miss school to appear before a judge.

With zero-tolerance enforcement demanding obedience for its own sake, students become accustomed to being threatened with arrest for minor transgressions; many, eventually, are arrested; they get dragged to the police station and miss class; they accumulate summons and have to spend a day at court; some go to juvenile detention or jail. “The school, where they are by law required to spend most of their day, becomes an auxiliary to the criminal justice system,” writes Nolan. Slippage in the language used to describe school routines, she notes, show how blurry the line has become: Students get “picked up” and “do time”; school personnel “cooperate” with the police, who do “sweeps” of the building. At one point, an officer confidently assures Nolan that the administrators are at the bottom of the school hierarchy, under the private security guards who search bags in the morning. The police, he said, were at the top.

Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that throughout the book, school staff conflates the educational and penal systems. “I think walking through that metal detector every morning completely brings hostility into the building before [the students] even start the day,” laments one veteran teacher, alluding to the school’s intensive security apparatus of surveillance cameras, metal detectors, scanners, guards, and cops. “It makes people feel like they’re walking into a prison.” The faculty too are prisoners in a sense, in some ways as powerless as the young people they are meant to instruct and guide. A teacher impotently confesses to a student cuffed for disorderly conduct, “You’ve been arrested. I can’t get involved. You know those teachers who got arrested. This is the same kind of situation.”

At another Bronx school a principal and student aide had recently been arrested for obstructing justice when they intervened under similar circumstances. The teachers do what they can, trying to understand the root causes of student rage and using positive, not punitive, feedback, but the minute the police are involved their hands are also tied. They are not empowered to tell the cops to quit, so they advise the kids to cope — to keep their heads down, do what they are told, and wait to be released after graduation. The ultimate lesson being imparted is the futility of resistance.

While researching, Nolan spent most of her time in the dean’s office, observing staff, and the detention room, where she gets to know a number of students, including some who were initiated into gangs while still in elementary school.  The “repeat offenders” she befriends fall into two categories — ­either they are behind in basic skills like reading and writing and cannot keep up with their peers or they are unchallenged by the coursework, bored and insulted by the material and the way it is presented. For these young people, the detention room, where they are generally left to their own thoughts, is a relief from regular classroom indignity. Things are so bleak that what should be a sanction is experienced as a reprieve.

Some schools, it turns out, are indeed like prisons, much more so than the flawed institution I attended. Nolan condemns the system as it currently stands in no uncertain terms: The “primary function” of the school she studied and others like it, she argues, “is the production of a whole population of criminalized, excluded youth.” Despite the well-meaning educators and students desperate and eager to learn, the purpose of such schools “appears to be the penal management” of this excluded population. Amid endless economic crisis, there are no jobs for them, no future, though many cling to their dreams of a better life. For those who want to play by the rules, who speak wistfully of college and a career, the path out of poverty — let alone toward the stable, satisfying, and fairly remunerated work they crave and deserve — is blocked by prejudice, debt, insecurity, and, for many men of color, incarceration.

“Like jails and insane asylums, schools isolate society from its problems, whether in preventing crime, or in curing mental disease, or in bringing up the young,” Paul Goodman wrote back in 1969.  Nolan’s excellent book shows how the problems Goodman highlighted come together in our worst performing public schools, which do little more than keep kids “off the streets,” out of sight and mind. Instead of future scholars or leaders young people are viewed as potential felons. Children with special needs, in particular, are treated like convicts.

Every few months a horror story breaks into the national consciousness — as in April, when a six-year-old girl was handcuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum at an elementary school in Milledgeville, Georgia, about 90 minutes from my ­hometown — causing mainstream media outlets to ask ridiculous questions: “Burping, doodling, food fights: Should students be arrested for minor misbehavior?” inquired CBS News. The answer, for any civilized society, should be obvious: No. As Zack, one of the bright troublemakers Nolan gets to know puts it, “The cops ain’t supposed to be in education.” Sadly, Zack’s wise words are being ignored by policy makers who prefer the locked-down semblance of order to the messy, unpredictable process of real learning. Zero-tolerance is the only proper response to their misguided approach.