Shortly after my first week at my public high school, I was introduced to the widely circulated rumor that the architect for my new home of higher learning was also the noted architect for many of the nation’s prisons and correctional facilities. A few steps into the dismal corridors of my high school and you were apt to believe the lore. A few weeks later a gruesome incident sealed the fate of this institution, and allowed the oppressive architecture to take hold of the very soul of the place. Long story short: one afternoon, a few former students at my high school came back to campus looking for trouble, for no particular reason. Some people said they were looking for a particular person that had wronged them. No one knows. Either way, they picked a fight with an innocent student walking alone in the halls and shot him dead fifty yards from where I was. The school went into lockdown (understandably), students were evacuated, and media and law enforcement swarmed, and nothing was ever the same after that. Metal detectors and security guards were posted at every door, and the place became a highly charged, highly paranoid, almost militaristic institution that had lost its innocence.
It could be said that over the last few decades, we have all lost our innocence in regard to personal safety in our public school system. From the events at Columbine High School to the implementation of the Zero Tolerance program, a program designed to keep drugs and weapons off of school campuses, we have entered into a highly alarmist state, where security and discipline has become job #1. The lasting effect of this development has drastically changed the school landscape and moved school administrators and educators into a role of strict authoritarians, and rendered students as inmates to be controlled as well as protected.
This phenomenon is profiled in the recent documentary The War on Kids, which reveals that the drive to educate children has become secondary to the desire to control and dominate. According to the film, children are subjected to the most invasive forms of control and are deprived of the most basic and fundamental human rights that are afforded even to prisoners of war. Strong accusations indeed, but if you look at some of the stats, including this one from the ACLU which states, Children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. The vast majority of these arrests are for non-violent offenses such as “disruptive conduct” or “disturbance of the peace.” And the rigid Zero Tolerance policies intended to protect children often wind up punishing or humiliating children who could have easily been dealt with in a more proactive manner (97 percent of all zero tolerance suspensions don’t involve drugs or a weapon). Many of these policies, when implemented, become short-sighted and wind up unnecessarily punishing children, like in the instance where a teenage boy prevented a girl friend from killing herself by taking a knife away from her and locking it away in his locker. He was praised by his teacher for coming to the aid of his distressed friend, but ultimately suspended for holding a weapon in his locker. There are numerous stories like these (some of them more egregious) that highlight the need for deeper investigation and reform when it comes to school safety and discipline.
Some would argue that this near totalitarian approach lends itself to a system where children (especially those in lower socio-economic areas) are fast tracked from high school to correctional facility (also called the “school to prison pipeline”) instead of maybe high school to college. To be fair, what has obviously taken place is a gradual erosion of civil liberties and civility within our schools. Schools should be a place to instill fair and democratic values; instead we are seeing extreme forms of authoritarian discipline. The students have no more rights and are apt to live up to societies low standards and enduring suspicions.
It is undeniable that something has seriously gone wrong. Some might say it is “children of today.” However I don’t buy it. Has the public school system lost its footing? Should parents be the ones teaching responsibility? Or is it a shared responsibility? Is keeping children safe a paramount concern above everything else? Are we investing in the juvenile justice system more than we are investing in the educational system? Who is to blame for the current state of public education and can it be reformed?