Prison or school? Educational or correctional facility? Silverado High School in Victorville, CA, houses students, not inmates. Yet, like many schools across the nation, its architectural features, surveillance systems, and disciplinary measures resemble penal institutions above all else. Although the rhetoric of safety is often invoked to promote these measures, are they truly effective, or do they instead treat all who enter as would-be criminals—and militarize educational spaces? School shootings have been used as a justification for these security measures. However, incidences of extreme violence have more often been at white suburban schools, while urban and rural schools with students of color have been assigned the bulk of security measures.
In the quest to create “safe schools,” students have become demoralized and criminalized. The presence of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, drug sniffing dogs, harsh ticketing policies, and prison-inspired architecture has created a generation of students, usually poor and of color, who are always under surveillance and always under suspicion. These modes of controlling spaces and the youth within them normalize expectations of criminality, often fulfilled when everyday violations of school rules lead to ticketing, suspension, or worse, court summons and eventual incarceration—a direct path into the criminal justice system. Are these the educational goals that schools should foster?
As some school buildings become indistinguishable from prisons, police presence in them has continued to increase, with an unequal impact on lower income schools with predominantly black and Latino student populations. The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the districts nationwide to have its own police department, which has an annual budget of over $52 million specifically dedicated to its schools. In the 2011-2012 school year black and Latino students received 93% of all tickets and arrests given by the LAUSD.
Research demonstrates that the presence of these police officers in schools positions youth at a high probability of becoming involved with the criminal justice system. The overreach of police and probation officers in schools assists in the criminalization of minor offenses previously dealt with by teachers and administrators. Acts such as vandalism, truancy, schoolyard fights, and general misbehavior have become labeled “willful defiance” and a crime punishable by suspension, ticketing, and even arrest. Though California law recently limited suspensions of K through 3rd graders for willful defiance, noting that even just one suspension doubles the likelihood of a student dropping out later, underserved schools still do not have resources to help students and teachers find other means to address behavioral issues.
Ever-present police and parole officers in schools also contribute to youth recidivism, making it easier for students who are already on probation to be arrested and re-incarcerated, based on minor infractions as simple as dress-code violations. As recent press coverage has revealed, the level of punishment for such offenses is excessive, and usually subjective by the student’s race. Young students of color are introduced at an early age into the juvenile justice system, which leads to school push-out of mostly black and brown students, serving as both a cause and reflection of the exponential racial disparity in the criminal justice system.
Youth of color in California, alongside teachers, parents, and community members, have actively organized in the past several decades to resist the “school-to-prison pipeline” and challenge the policies, structures, and school police personnel that facilitate contact between students and the juvenile justice system. Community organizations serve as primary vehicles for resistance through rallies and public protests, art, public education, direct action organizing, the production of policy proposals aimed at decriminalizing students of color, or challenging the pipeline in court. The ACLU, the L.A. chapter of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, the Community Rights Campaign, and the Youth Justice Coalition advocate for reforms which, among other things, would reduce militarized police presence, ticketing, harsh disciplinary policies and testing regimes, and other elements of school environments which criminalize students of color and educational spaces. The development of restorative and transformative justice frameworks in school districts across Southern California, from Los Angeles to San Bernardino and San Diego, has served as key youth-centered points of resistance to the criminalization of students and school paces.
Despite extensive ongoing anti-pipeline activism, the nexus between school and prisons persists. Without significant investment in restorative justice policies, school counselors, and peer mentors, as well as the removal of architectural features which transform schools into harsh prison-like environments, black and brown youth will continue to be egregiously and disproportionately criminalized and pushed from schools into the juvenile justice system.
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