An edited version of this article appeared in the Chicago Reader.
Prisons are not the ideal venues for education. Therefore, it is not a great idea to turn schools into prisons. As a corollary, treating children as if they were hardened criminals does not imbue them with the joy of learning. If you brutalize students and treat them with contempt, they will not buckle down to their work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. On the contrary, they will start to react to school the same way that prisoners react to prison. Which is to say, they will want to get. out.
In short, schools should not be prisons. Surely that shouldn’t be controversial. And yet, controversial it is, as Annette Fuentes documents in her dismally depressing book, Lockdown High: When the School House Becomes a Jail House. Since the 1980s, and especially since the Columbine shootings in 1999, the U.S. has experienced a rolling moral panic, sparking increasingly draconian security measures in schools across the country.
Fuentes’ prose is fairly flat, and structurally her book is investigative journalism boilerplate — description of outrageous exemplary incident, generalized problem illuminated by incident, report from convention devoted to evil-doers who profit from generalized problem, highlighting of inspirational activists promulgating inspirational solutions. But the very banality of the form adds to the despair. Metal detectors, random drug testing, SWAT teams busting kids’ heads, zero tolerance, suspensions, racism…it all tromps by in a numbing parade of idiocy and futility. Violent homicides in school are vanishingly rare; study after study shows that kids are less likely to be harmed in school than at home; study after study shows that violence in schools has been falling since the early ‘90s; study after study shows that heightened security measures do little if anything to reduce violence or drug use. And yet, the militarization of schools goes on, oblivious to argument or logic. If you didn’t know better, after reading this book you might come to the conclusion that, as a society, we are looking for an excuse to torture our children.
Indeed, Fuentes provides a certain amount of evidence that schooling has always been about torture. Her first chapter, titled “A Brief History of School Violence,” begins, not with school shootings, but with a discussion of corporal punishment. As she notes:
“as long as there have been public schools…there has been chaose and control, crime and punishment in the classroom…. The rhythm of switch and ferule — even the cat-o’-nine-tails — provided the meter by which the early schoolmaster or –mistress imparted the three Rs and obedience to misbehaving youngsters.” (page 1)
Fuentes adds that such violence involved not only teacher’s beating students, but often students fighting back; older boys tossing the teacher out of the classroom was almost a ritualized right of passage. Thus, from the first, schools in America trafficked in, and taught, violence.
This violence, according to Fuentes, was often entangled with class and racial animosities. She points out that the first compulsory schooling laws in 1852 were aimed at dumping the children of Boston Irish immigrants into reform schools — the connection between prison and school written into law from the very beginning. And of course, in the 60s and later, “school violence” was most often associated with racial tensions around desegregation. Fuentes doesn’t even mention one of the most shocking incidents, the Kanawha County textbook wars of 1974, in which the adoption of controversial reading materials led irate rural West Virginians to bomb school buildings and shoot at school buses.
Fuentes’ aim in highlighting this history is, I think, to show that violence is not in fact on the rise in schools. Kids aren’t worse than they used to be; school aren’t more dangerous than they used to be. The increasingly hysterical approach to security in schools is, therefore, not a response to a real problem, but rather a self-reinforcing exercise in ideological hysteria.
Fuentes hopes that parent activism can help end that hysteria, which in turn will mean an end to the lockdown high phenomena. She points hopefully to examples like Chicago Public School’s decision in 2006 to move away from zero tolerance policies. Chicago, she notes, is “modeling positive change.”
It seems like I’m always hearing that Chicago schools are at the forefront of something or other. As a Chicago father, I suppose this should make me happy. And yet, somehow, my warm fuzzy feeling is limited. And not just because of the incident Fuentes relates about the five-year-old being taken out of a CPS school in handcuffs.
The problem is, the history of discipline and violence which Fuentes discusses does not give me a lot of hope. On the contrary, it leads me to suspect that the lockdown high phenomena is a not an aberration, but a logical extension of longtime public school philosophy. School has always been a prison, though it is, as George Bernard Shaw says, “in some respects more cruel than a prison….. In the prison you are not forced to sit listening to turnkeys discoursing without charm or interest on subjects that they don’t understand and don’t care about….” Nor, to update Shaw slightly, are prisoners subjected to unending, compulsive, mindless testing. Fuentes presents evidence that schools are relatively safe places for student’s bodies, but she doesn’t address the issue of what they do to their souls.
I had initially hoped to send my child to CPS because…well, it’s free, mostly, and within convenient walking distance. What dissuaded me was not the story about the five-year-old in handcuffs (which I hadn’t heard) but two other factors. First, most Chicago public schools don’t have recess. Second, when I went online to read about Murray Language Academy, the school my son was thinking of entering, the first thing I saw on the website was that all students (presumably meaning kindergartners too) would have homework every night. This was presented as being a good thing.
I’m not sure that even Fuentes would consider a lack of recess or ubiquitous homework to be aspects of the lockdown high phenomena. But to me it all seems to be of a piece. If you were kind, you could say that public schools have always struggled to balance the desire to control kids with the desire to teach them. If you were more cynical, you might say that the balancing has never been all that difficult, because the desire to teach has always been easy to stifle.
So my seven-year-old does not go to CPS. Instead he goes to a Waldorf private school where they have no metal detectors, no hand-cuffs, no homework, and two recesses a day. I’m lucky to be in a financial position to send him there; obviously, for many people, public schools are the only option. For their sake, we as a society have, as Fuentes indicates, a moral obligation to roll back the worst excesses of lockdown high. Even if we manage to do that, though, our public schools in general, and Chicago schools in particular, will still be no place for children.