Why Do Our Schools Look Like Prisons? What Is This Doing To Our Students?

I was walking into work today and a colleague of mine began exchanging small talk. She knows that my husband John is incarcerated and was kind enough to ask me how he was doing. I told her that, all things considered, he’s doing really well and that I was excited to see and spend time with him this weekend. She asked me if it was “rough” there (meaning Sing Sing). I told her that from what John has shared with me, prison is inherently a horrible environment in which to live, especially, as he has, for a long period of time. However, he, being the consummate optimist that he is, always reminds me when I start hyperventilating at the mere thought of those conditions that, just like anywhere else, prison is what you make of it.

With that, just as we approached the front steps of the school building, the conversation shifted slightly when my colleague said, “You know what I notice? The schools look just like the prisons!” My colleague has no idea that I write for a blog or that I recently wrote a blog about that very topic not too long ago. Her comment solidified what I and so many scholars know to be true: Urban schools in lower socio-economic neighborhoods are designed to look and feel like prisons inside on purpose.

For example, I recently learned that in many schools that are filled with Black and Brown students who are deemed low-performing, they (the students) are not allowed to stand up in the cafeteria during their lunch period. I’m sorry, but that is ludicrous! Students are expected to sit quietly in their seats during most classes. This is what’s considered compliant behavior. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I’ll save that for another blog on another day. Suffice it to say that even taking students outside for class or simply to run up and down and be kids in the most basic sense of the word, is frowned upon by some educators.  They say it promotes the children behaving in an unruly manner….but I digress.

On any given morning, when students from disenfranchised neighborhoods approach the school grounds, they are met by police cars on the campus. I know I’m super-sensitive to images like this given how close in proximity I am in both my professional and personal life to the school-to-prison-pipeline. However,  it’s beyond that and it’s not just me. I am not the only one who is noticing the parallels between the school environment and the prison environment.

Samini Hadi-Tabassum writes in Education Week that,

All day long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American students are taught to obey…caught between educational theory that advocates for the whole child and a school culture that resembles a prison’s…teachers have to make strategic decisions daily about what is best for their students and what rules they may need to subvert while avoiding the administration’s gaze.

Simply put, schools across New York expect poor Black and Brown kids to sit, be quiet, and obey the rules  just like correctional officers expect from the disproportionate number of Black and Brown men and women housed as inmates in prisons across New York. Students, from as early as Kindergarten, are not being taught to be free thinkers — heaven forbid! Instead, they are being trained  to be compliant beings in order to obey arbitrary, racially-motivated rules. Routines of standing in line with their hands behind their backs or stretched out at the side, walking through metal detectors several times a day, being body-scanned several times a day, and seeing police officers in uniform patrol the floors of the school daily are setting the students who attend these schools up for accepting such daily routines as normal by the time they leave high school at 17 or 18 years-old.

But,  in fact, these occurrences are anything but normal.

The Crime Report says it best: “Just as schools are beginning to resemble prisons, the youth contained in these spaces are in danger of fulfilling the expectations that authorities project onto them via negative racial, gender, class, and neighborhood stereotypes…In the name of justice, and often in the name of protecting our youth, America’s schools and criminal justice systems are veering toward a curious alliance.”

John and I have been together for two years now and the stigma of walking through the metal detectors and being searched in order to see him has not become any less stressful. I despise it; yet when I see children coming up to the prison to see their fathers they appear far less bothered by this event than I am. Part of that may just be the innocence of a child. Part of it too, though, is that young children are subjected to prison-like environments in their schools daily

What do you think?

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