When School Feels Like Prison


In December 2012, a Senate subcommittee was convened to examine the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend in which overly punitive school discipline policies push students out of school and into the criminal-justice system. Among the witnesses at the first-ever congressional hearing on this issue was Edward Ward, at the time an honor-roll student in his sophomore year at DePaul University and a recent graduate of Orr Academy on the West Side of Chicago. He offered an eye-opening first-hand account of his high-school experience. “From the moment we stepped through the doors in the morning, we were faced with metal detectors, X-ray machines, and uniformed security,” said Ward, describing a high-poverty, majority-black campus “where many young people … feel unwelcome and under siege.”

Far from an aberration, what Ward depicts—public schools serving primarily black and other nonwhite students that rely on more restrictive security—is quite common, according to a new research paper from Jason P. Nance, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Nance set out to find if there was a proliferation of school security following highly publicized school shootings like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He discovered that many schools had intensified their security and surveillance of students, but the practice was not equally applied. Rather, schools with a preponderance of students of color within the school building were more inclined to adopt strict surveillance practices—metal detectors, locked gates, security cameras, random sweeps, and school police.



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