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How Schools Are Becoming Prisons

Posted on Mar 27, 2013
AP/Ann Heisenfelt

Students pass through a metal detector on their first day of class after a shooting at Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minn., in 2005.

By Chase Madar

The school-to-prison pipeline is under fire as its over-the-top thuggishness—exemplified recently in New York by the police handcuffing of a 7-year-old under the false suspicion he took $5 from a classmate—makes headlines more and more often. But the initial government response to tragedies like the Newtown school massacre has not been meaningful gun control. Instead, officials are pushing to make campuses more prison like: more armed police personnel, more metal detectors and more surveillance technology. I recently discussed the matter with Annette Fuentes, a Bay Area journalist and the author of “Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse,” the single best study of the overcriminalization of American schoolchildren.

Chase Madar: What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

Annette Fuentes: Education researchers and youth advocates began using that provocative and descriptive term more than a decade ago to describe the process in which the failures of public schools to educate so many kids puts them at risk of getting sucked into the juvenile criminal justice system. Today, it encompasses increased policing in schools, which means more arrests and the direct flow of youth into detention centers, as well as the epidemic of suspensions for minor violations of school codes that may be treated in a court setting.

In “Lockdown High,” I describe a two-way flow of the pipeline, with features of the criminal justice system, especially prisons, being adopted by schools. Surveillance cameras, metal detectors, even biometric ID systems that were originally developed for prisons are now commonplace in schools. And some of this technology, I discovered, has been devised with government funding at the Department of Justice in the name of “school safety.”

Madar: What do you expect will happen to school security in the U.S. after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary last December? Both the National Rifle Association and liberal Democratic senators like Barbara Boxer have requested that more armed guards be put in schools. Is this likely to happen?


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Fuentes: After every high-profile, headline-grabbing mass shooting, like Columbine in 1999 and now the Sandy Hook tragedy, there is a predictable and reflexive public reaction in favor of beefing up school security. More armed police. More cameras, etc. Parents rightly want to believe their kids will come home from school safe and sound, and they pressure school administrators and politicians to do something concrete and immediate to guarantee that. But in truth, if someone wants to harm a large number of people—kids, theatergoers, shopping mall customers—it is almost impossible to stop them given the abundance of semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines that make them killing machines. Sandy Hook Elementary had locked doors and an intercom system that required visitors to be buzzed in, but the shooter blasted his way.

It is instructive to note that after the Columbine assault, in which 13 victims and the two assailants died, the school community made a conscious decision not to install metal detectors at school doors. The principal told me that they didn’t want to turn the school into “a fortress.” In fact, the school added a couple more cameras in the hallways and hired a couple of older men to act as hall monitors—unarmed. They stuck with the same one local policeman assigned to the school.

The NRA’s proposal to put an armed guard in every school is what you’d expect from the gun industry’s lobby. Boxer’s proposal is proof that the “school violence” issue is something everyone can get behind—a real unifying, bipartisan issue! Luckily, there just isn’t the money to pay for such harebrained and useless schemes, and they will fade soon enough. But what has been heartening has been the widespread focus on and debate over gun control that really dominated the news and the narrative post-Sandy Hook. That was not the case after similar mass shootings.

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