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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.2 (April – July 2023)
Matthew B. Kautz
When I began my teaching career in Detroit, I entered my co-located high school with excitement about all the curricular possibilities. However, within days, it became painfully clear the school’s approach to discipline dominated the educational experiences of students and staff. This point was driven home at the end of my second week of teaching when a pep rally turned chaotic after a water bottle was thrown from one row of seats to another.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my school’s administration called the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and then ushered students out through the main entrance. Three DPD cruisers swerved to a stop in front of the school as students exited the doors, and officers began chasing the now frightened youth. Police mercilessly sprayed mace to incapacitate and arrest students. The following Monday, our school’s administration suspended students suspected of participating in the chaos for resisting arrest. The horror of powerlessly watching that scene unfold, the issuance of exclusionary punishments seemingly without cause, and the frightening banality of it all in the eyes of my veteran peers left me dumbfounded.
Our school continued to suspend students indiscriminately for the rest of the year, while the DPD periodically entered the building and roamed the hallways. I later learned these “sweep teams” dated to the 1980s, when police began conducting random body searches at schools. The combination of mass suspensions and police presence constricted our school’s educational possibilities, creating a repressive culture founded on mistrust. This mistrust combined with an austerity budget produced an unease about job security and students’ futures that proved paralytic. With so few resources, we relied on punishment, rather than risk imagining how we might build a safe and supportive community without suspension.
This system of punishment in our segregated school, like many of those throughout the country, rested upon educator discretion which determined what actions rose to a suspendable offense or were labeled a crime. Although the prevailing relationship between schools, police, and prisons has often been framed as an outgrowth of “zero tolerance” policies passed in the 1990s, which automated suspensions for chargeable offenses (such as possession of drugs or weapons on school grounds or fighting), our current crisis stems from an even longer history of criminalization of young people, particularly low-income youth of color, through vague disciplinary policies predicated on education discretion (Kautz, 2023). Most suspensions, in the past and present, have been for minor behaviors issued at the discretion of teachers and principals (Fabelo et al., 2011).
Schools’ reliance on exclusionary punishments took shape in the mid-twentieth century. The number of suspensions issued expanded dramatically following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1973, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund and the Southern Regional Council published a study entitled The Student Pushout: Victim of Continued Resistance to Desegregation, which demonstrated how “suspension and expulsion ha[d] been used as weapons of discrimination, especially in resisting increased desegregation and in some instances during protests for more general students’ rights.” These suspensions, the report found, were largely for ambiguous offenses which hinged on how educators understood and framed student behavior. Local school boards, teachers, and administrators resisted legal challenges by organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund that sought to abolish suspension and create new systems of justice and accountability within schools on the premise that teachers and principals needed unlimited authority over school discipline to ensure order. Of course, in the highly contested era of desegregation, “order” operated as a facially race-neutral euphemism for segregation. As one lawyer protesting the discriminatory use of suspension in Boston during court-ordered desegregation put it, “City defendants have done everything in their power to keep black children from attending school with white children. Prevented by this court from locking the door, they have, through the suspension device, created a revolving door that sends black children home almost as fast as they arrive at a ‘desegregated’ school” (Kautz, 2023).
Throughout the country, the growing presence of police within schools exacerbated this punitive system. During the 1960s, police started entering schools on a regular basis in response to student activism and to oversee the process of desegregation (Hale, 2018; Kautz, 2023). Police departments, which municipal governments had used to uphold segregation, were now charged with ensuring peaceful desegregation and maintaining order. Rather than addressing massive white resistance, their focus increasingly turned to Black youth. The combination of discretionary suspensions and police in schools turned adolescent behaviors into suspendable offenses and, sometimes, crimes. In places like Boston, school officials invested heavily in police and paramilitary security structures. Between 1979 and 1985, the city’s school security budget increased from $700,000 to more than $2 million, even as overall educational expenditures decreased by 15 percent (Kautz, 2023).
Over time, this punitive combination metastasized into what is commonly called the “school-to-prison-pipeline” or “school-prison nexus,” and it created ideological justifications for the hyper surveillance of Black youth inside and outside of school, the implementation of strict disciplinary policies, and the (re)segregation of schools. Its corrosive effects have constricted our imagination for building school community and creating spaces for all children to thrive. It has also redirected scarce resources away from students, educators, and guidance counselors to school police, disciplinary aides, and metal detectors.
The intensity of police power and punitive discipline is most severe in the nation’s segregated schools serving Black and Latinx students, thus making these institutions key sites of criminalization. Young people attending these schools confront heightened possibilities of arrest and imprisonment (Schept et al., 2014). Statistical analyses of school punishment and incarceration have demonstrated that suspension “is the number-one predictor . . . of whether children will drop out of school, and walk down a road that includes a greater likelihood of unemployment . . . and imprisonment” (Flannery, 2015). Students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year, and those suspensions increase the likelihood a young person drops out of school (Fabelo et al., 2011). Once a school pushes out a child, they are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those who graduate from high school (Schept et al., 2014).
Still more troublesome, policymakers and education reformers have used the suspension and school-based arrest statistics produced by these discriminatory systems of punishment to naturalize and rationalize school segregation, punitive disciplinary policies, and the reallocation of educational resources into surveillance and policing. In schools like the one where I began my teaching career, the educational possibilities for students, parents, teachers, and administrators have been and remain circumscribed by our punitive orientation and insistence that we as educators, alongside police, could issue punishment at our discretion. Within this prerogative, one that was cemented into policy and practice amidst massive resistance to school desegregation, rests the premise that not all students are entitled to the benefits of schooling, that policymakers and educators need not divest from exclusionary imperatives, only redirect them.
This history of school policing and punishment should destabilize presumptions that suspensions or school-based police increase safety or provide educational value. In fact, researchers have found that the presence of police on a school campus increases the likelihood of arrest five-fold and that suspensions cause significant harm, including pushing students out of school (Henning, 2021). To address our current crisis, we must reconcile with the discretion embedded within prevailing school disciplinary systems and expand how we conceptualize community and accountability. For instance, when the Children’s Defense Fund sought to abolish suspension in the 1970s, they turned to educators in New York who collaborated with students to redefine what school could be. In response to students’ recommendations, the principal designated a room within the building as “the student lounge”—a space students had requested to cool down and collect themselves—and developed new courses based on student interest (Children’s Defense Fund, 1975). As another example, the Black Panthers’ Oakland Community School encouraged democratic participation and accountability by establishing a “Justice Court,” in which students organized and conducted hearings (Robinson, 2020). During court-ordered desegregation in Boston, Puerto Rican students proposed convening a jury to adjudicate disciplinary matters composed of teachers, students, and family members who collectively presided over allegations of misbehavior, including those made against teachers (“Memo and Draft Opinion and Order on Student Discipline,” 1976). These examples speak to the various ways educators can dispense punitive imperatives to reimagine justice and accountability in solidarity with their students.
The liberatory potential of education has often made schools the site of struggles for justice and institutions through which new possibilities have taken shape. However, the history of segregation and inequality in our schools has foreshortened these possibilities and continues to do so into the present. Educators, alongside students and families, can curtail the reach of the school-prison nexus by expelling police from schools and hiring social workers, school nurses, and community aides in their place. Similarly, transforming disciplinary systems of punishment into democratic processes of accountability and equality can create the spaces necessary to reimagine what school could be and build it alongside students.
The existence of possible solutions does not mean implementation will be easy, as social and institutional changes never are. As Robin Kelley has observed, social movements are as much about the demonstrations that define them and the structural change they can ignite as they are about “self-transformation” that “chang[es] the way we think, live, love, and handle pain.” Unmaking the school-prison nexus will require hope, patience, and love. It will require a willingness to partner with the young people in our care to dream about what school can be and build it together.
Children’s Defense Fund. (1975). School Suspensions—Are They Helping Children? A Report. Washington Research Project.
Fabelo, T., Thompson, M., Plotkin, M, Carmichael, D., Marchbankss III, M., & Booth, E. (2011). Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Flannery, M. (2015). “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Time to Shut It Down.” neaToday.
Hale J. N. (2018). Future Foot Soldiers or Budding Criminals?: The Dynamics of High School Student Activism in the Southern Black Freedom Struggle. Journal of Southern History, 84 (3), 64.
Henning, K. (2021). The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. Pantheon Books.
Kautz, M. (2023). From Segregation to Suspension: The Solidification of the Contemporary School-Prison Nexus in Boston, 1963-1985. Journal of Urban History, 49 (5). “Memo and Draft Opinion and Order on Student Discipline.”
Arthur Garrity, Jr. Chambers Papers on the Boston Schools Desegregation Case, Joseph P. Healey Library, UMASS-Boston, Series LIII Safety and Security, 1974-1985, Box 41, Folder 10.
Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund & Southern Regional Council (1974). The Student Pushout: Victim of Continued Resistance to Desegregation. Southern Regional Council.
Robinson, R. P. (2020). Until the Revolution: Analyzing the Politics, Pedagogy, and Curriculum of the Oakland Community School. Espacio, Tiempo y Educacion, 7 (1), 181.
Schept, J., Wall, T., & Brisman, A. (2014). Building, Staffing, and Insulating: An Architecture of Criminological Complicity in the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Social Justice, 41 (4), 96.
Matthew Kautz (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University.