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Public Enemy No. 1: Students?

Resource type: News

Chicago Sun-Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Leanne Italie

High-tech surveillance. Metal detectors. Zero tolerance for, well, just about any bad behavior, real or overblown.

Welcome to Lockdown High, the title of a sweeping new book by journalist Annette Fuentes, describing how the schoolhouse has become a jailhouse and fear prevails.

Dating to Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs launched nearly three decades ago, fueled by campus shootings and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “preoccupation with security and violence are particularly acute when it comes to children and teenagers,” she writes.

But a paradox exists, Fuentes argues, and it goes like this: “Children are considered both potential victims, vulnerable to dangers from every corner, and perpetrators of great violence and mayhem, demanding strict, preventive discipline.”

After the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High, where two students fatally shot 13 people and themselves, youth became Public Enemy No. 1 and the “criminalizing trends in juvenile justice that were swirling in the 1990s were by then flooding into public schools.” It came, ironically, at a time when school violence and juvenile crime actually had begun to subside, Fuentes writes.

She dedicates an entire chapter to Columbine, which opted not to install metal detectors or turn itself into a fortress after the campus rampage. “The Columbine scenario is terrifying, but the odds of it occurring in your hometown are about one in two million,” Fuentes notes, citing a joint study in 2000 by the Justice Policy Institute and the Children’s Law Center.

Fuentes points out that guns are by no means rampant in schools, and kids who do bring weapons in are always suspended. “We know the number of guns collected in schools is really small by any measure,” Fuentes said in an interview. But she added that the bigger problem is an epidemic of “suspensions for discretionary reasons,” unrelated to serious crimes like weapons possession. These suspensions, Fuentes contends, have become an easy way to squeeze out low-achieving kids amid the pressures of high-stakes testing in schools.

Fuentes recently talked about the book.

Q. Are schools safer today as a result of the Lockdown High model?

A. Schools are among the safest places for children and young people to be and have been for many years. School violence and crime have been dropping steadily since 1993, just as crime in society in general has been plummeting. But high-tech security and harsh disciplinary policies were promoted as a political solution when high-profile incidents, like the Columbine shooting, occurred.

There is just a huge disconnect between the public’s perception of public schools and kids as dangerous and the reality. Kids today are no more violent than any other generation. I look at the school violence back in the 1800s and it is amazing what took place between teachers and students back then. For the last 20 years, though, we’ve bought into the myth of endemic school violence, and the consequences are damaging for our children and for the quality of their education.

You can’t learn in a prison-like environment where you are treated as a suspect. The research shows that schools with the most security measures and harsh disciplinary policies actually have more disorder and violent incidents. Treat young people like criminals, they will live down to your expectations.

Q. How and when did the hysteria begin and how is it that Columbine High School itself opted for a far less restrictive approach?

A. The 1990s saw a string of fatal gun incidents in schools that were seared in the public’s consciousness and really fueled policies at the federal, state and local level to punish, suspend and expel students for a range of behaviors.

In every single incident, easy access to guns by angry or disturbed boys led to tragic consequences. They were headline-grabbing events, but even so, they represented rare events, the exception not the rule. And then Columbine occurred in 1999 — two teenaged boys with a small arsenal — and the nation was convinced that every school was a Columbine waiting to happen.

The reality that homicides at school happen rarely was overwhelmed by fear, and the response has been to crack down in ways that really are criminalizing our young people. There were students suspended for what schools call “terroristic threats” for a comment about a principal or for assault for tossing a spit ball in class. It has gone to an extreme that doesn’t make anyone safer.

Q. You refer in the book to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Can you explain what you mean?

A. Education experts have for a while now talked about how zero-tolerance suspensions, which number in the hundreds of thousands annually in many states, are pushing students out of school. This is especially true for the lowest-achieving students and in many urban districts that include disproportionate numbers of African-American and Latino kids.

Students who are suspended in the lower grades are more likely to be suspended as they get older and by ninth grade, they are at risk of dropping out and into criminal activity. Failing schools create a pipeline into prison, in other words. Add to that a heavier police presence in many schools that means more students arrested for misbehaviors — pushing in the hallways becomes “assault” or “disorderly conduct” — and you have schools as feeders for the prison system.

Q. Where do these issues stand today, since you did your research?

A. There is a slow, growing momentum to reject zero-tolerance policies and adopt more effective strategies to create safe schools without punitive measures. The evidence shows that suspensions are epidemic and are derailing the educations of too many kids.

A national coalition called the Dignity in Schools Campaign is promoting legislation for a new approach to discipline called positive behavioral intervention and supports. It rewards students for their good behavior instead of demonizing them for doing wrong. As one legal advocate explained to me, when a student gets a math problem wrong, the teacher doesn’t punish them and send them home. They teach the problem over and over until the student understands why it was wrong and how to make it right.

It should be the same for behavior. It doesn’t mean there will never be problems or violence in schools and that such behaviors shouldn’t be punished. But schools have to get back to education and away from the punitive model of discipline.

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The Dignity in Schools Campaign is funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies.