Police, Discipline, and Zero Tolerance in Urban Classrooms

Have you ever thought about whether police in school hallways is a good idea or not?

I strongly recommend this review by James Boutin , a former DCPS teacher, about a book on just this topic. I won’t pretend that I handled interactions regarding student discipline well in every case. But things are getting even worse these days in the poorer schools with browner student populations. Teachers find that they lose their authority to police officers and security guards, and that incidents that used to be handled inside the school system now become judicial matters; as a result, many kids end up with a criminal record for defying authority in the only way that they know how to do it. For example: wearing hats inside the building.

A quote from James’ review:

Consider a brief example (Police in the Hallways provides many more). Nolan notes that students identify their apparel as fundamental to their self-expression of identity. (One student compares the DOE requirement that no hats be worn in school to requiring adults to walk around with no shoes.) Those who disobey this policy (one that Nolan feels has little reasoning to justify it) by wearing hats are simultaneously engaging in an act of self-expression AND opposition to institutional rules they view as illegitimate. Furthermore, by refusing to remove one’s hat for a teacher or security agent, students potentially gain favor with peers for proving that they’re not “a punk” AND continuing to resist illegitimate authority. Thus students can carve out a modicum of control in an institution that constantly attempts to deprive them of it.

Highly punitive zero tolerance policies and students’ reactions to them have had the effect of repositioning some schools as institutions of control rather than learning, and the impact is disproportionately harmful for poor and minority school children. Nolan writes, “It is a moral outrage that we would take such punitive stand in matters of urban school discipline when so little is offered to urban schools.” Rather than relying on increasingly harsh consequences as our only recourse for students in schools who don’t conform to our expectations, Nolan calls for a reevaluation both of the policies we impose on low-income schools and also of our responses when students and communities resist them. Importantly, such a reevaluation must be done in light of a nuanced and holistic understanding of the challenges people living in urban poverty in the United States in the early 21st century are facing – e.g. lack of available legal employment, the influence of drugs and gangs, and the highly transient nature of families who live there.

It reminds me of two other books that I am also reading: Slavery By Another Name, and The New Jim Crow. More on those later, but I strongly recommend both of those books, too.

Published in: on July 29, 2012 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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