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Schools as Punishing Factories: The Handcuffing of Public Education

Posted on Aug 6, 2015

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

THOR / CC BY 2.0

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This piece first appeared at Truthout.

The Nobel Prize-winning author Ngugi wa Thiong’o has insisted rightfully that “Children are the future of any society,” adding, “If you want to maim the future of any society, you simply maim the children.”

As we move into the second Gilded Age, young people are viewed more as a threat than as a social investment.

If one important measure of a democracy is how a society treats its children - especially children of color, poor and working-class youth, and those with disabilities - there can be little doubt that the United States is failing. Half of all public school children live in near poverty, 16 million children receive food stamps and 90 percent of Black children will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. Moreover, too many children are either incarcerated or homeless.

To read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.


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The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that “One in 45 children experience homelessness in America each year. That’s over 1.6 million children. [Moreover] while homeless, they experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experience also has profound effects on their development and ability to learn.” Sadly, these statistics rarely scratch the surface of the dire and deep-seated problems facing many young people in the richest country in the world, a state of affairs that provokes too little public outrage.

Teachable Moment or Criminal Offense?

Every age has its approach to identifying and handling problems. As we move into the second Gilded Age, young people are viewed more as a threat than as a social investment. Instead of being viewed as at-risk in a society that has defaulted on its obligations to young people, youth today are viewed as the risk itself. Instead of recognizing the social problems and troubles they face - ranging from poverty to punishing schools - our society sees youth as spoiled or threatening. One consequence is that their behaviors are increasingly criminalized in the streets, malls, schools and many other places once considered safe spaces for them. As compassion and social responsibility give way to punishment and fear as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth to the larger social order, schools resort more and more to zero-tolerance policies and other punitive practices. Such practices often result in the handing over of disciplinary problems to the police rather than to educational personnel.

Children are being punished instead of educated in US schools.

With the growing presence of police, surveillance technologies and security guards in schools, more and more of what kids do, how they act, how they dress and what they say are defined as a criminal offense, regardless of how trivial the offense may be - in some cases just doodling on a desk or violating a dress code. Such behaviors, which teachers and administrators use to regulate through everyday means, are now treated as infractions within the purview of the police. Consequently, suspensions, expulsions, arrests and jail time have become routine for poor youth of color. Even more shocking is the rise of zero-tolerance policies to punish Black students and students with disabilities. Instead of recognizing the need to provide services for students with special needs, there is a dangerous trend on the part of school systems to adopt policies “that end in seclusion, restraint, expulsion, and - too often - law enforcement intervention for the disabled children involved.” Sadly, this is but a small sampling of the ways in which children are being punished instead of educated in US schools, especially inner-city schools. Rather than treating school infractions as part of the professional responsibilities of teachers and administrators, schools are criminalizing such behaviors and calling the police. What might have become a teachable moment becomes a criminal offense.

Since the 1990s, the US public has been swamped by the fear of an alleged rise in teenage crime and what was called a superpredator crisis. This crisis was largely popularized by John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton University, who argued without irony “that hordes of depraved teenagers [were about to resort] to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience.” Politicians, intellectuals and news organizations were convinced that young people posed a dire threat to the US public and not only reveled “on these sensational predictions [but also] ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.” While such chaos proved to be nonsense, the theses spawned a plethora of disciplinary practices in schools, such as zero-tolerance policies, which have turned them into institutions that resemble prisons with students being subjected to harsh disciplinary practices, particularly poor black children and children suffering from mental health problems, such as ADHD.

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