The social and economic implications of the quality education that children in the United States of America receive ,while not absolute, are critical in determining their future trajectories. The institution that children come into contact with the most in their prepubescent, formative years outside of their communities are schools. From both an operational and architectural standpoint, public schools function as an important organization in socializing and routinizing the behaviors of the youngest segments of the population. Pioneering educators such as Stanley Hall called for the creation of pedocentric schools where the institution’s paramount mission was to serve the social and psychological needs of children. In fact, Hall notably characterized pre-adolescent children as “savages” and therefore rationalized that reasoning with them was a futile effort. Rather, he proposed that the panacea for society’s degenerates- poor and urban communities -was a good dose of authoritarian discipline. Social and education reformers of his ilk in the early 20th century believed that public schools were in many cases, the last and only life line to save children from their predestined fate of failure. 

As Pedro Antonio Noguera explains in his book Preventing Violence in Schools Through The Production of Docile Bodies, “It was to the school that progressives turned as the institution that would at least complement familial education and in many instances correct it and compensate for its shortcomings. The school would rear the children of ordinary families, it would provide refuge for the children of exploitative families, and it would acculturate the children of immigrant families…the school would deliver whatever services children needed to develop into health, happy and well-instructed citizens – it would provide meals for the poorly fed, medical treatment for the unhealthy, and guidance for the emotionally disturbed…Though progressives asserted the primacy of familial education, they advanced the pre-eminence of schooling”. Ultimately, the school operated as a repressive space that used mechanisms to create and embed a racialized social order in the psyche of America’s children. The repressive technologies used in these spaces provoked behaviors that in turn were criminalized at the outset of the school yard-to-prison yard pipeline.

Intimidation and fear through repressive state technologies in schools is a key reason that some scholars and activists are claiming that urban school systems are feeders to prisons. The ways in which many school districts enforce compliance with school policy is by using equipment that mirrors a prison. In fact, solutions that many districts employ to thwart school violence has generated a package of remedies that closely resemble those utilized in society for combating the threat of violence and crime. “For example, in 1998 the New York City School Board voted unanimously to transfer the day-to-day functions of the Division of School Safety to the New York Police Department” (Heiner and Mangual 2002:226) Some of the more popular measures include: the installation of metal detectors at school entrances to prevent students from bringing weapons on to school grounds; the enactment of “zero tolerance” policies which guarantee the automatic removal of students (through either suspension, expulsion or transfer) who perpetrate acts of violence; and the use of police officers and security guards to patrol and monitor student behavior while school is in session. Accompanying the implementation of such measures has been an increase in the tendency of school officials to treat violent incidents, (and sometimes non-violent incidents as well) involving students as criminal offenses to be handled by law enforcement officials and the courts, rather than by the school personnel.

The disproportionate number of Black and Latino students who are subjected to various forms of school discipline overwhelmingly bolster the argument that criminalization starts at an early age. In California, legislation has been proposed to limit the ability of school districts to use suspensions and expulsions as a form of punishment, to respond to the imbalance in the number of Black and Latino students who are subjected to these sorts of penalties. The mere fact that legislation has been proposed is an indication of the depth of feeling in many Black communities that Black children are being treated unfairly.  In Houston 54% of students are white while 35% are black. In the 2007-2008 school year 61% of all suspensions were of black students while only 31% were white. In Cincinnati, the disproportionate number of Black students who are suspended and expelled in public schools prompted a judge to call for teachers and administrators to be held accountable for “student behavior management”, as part of a court order monitoring desegregation in the district’s schools.

The time to hold our public schools accountable is now!