The School-to-Prison Pipeline

The End of Policing BY Alex S. Vitale. Verso. 272 pages. $17.
The cover of The End of Policing

In 2005, three police officers in Florida forcibly arrested a five-year-old African American girl for misbehaving in school. It was captured on video. The singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, like most others, was appalled by what he saw and initiated a campaign to train the next generation of civil rights activists: the Gathering for Justice, which in turn created the Justice League, an important force in the Black Lives Matter movement. At the core of the group’s demands is a call to end the criminalization of young people in schools.

Over the last twenty years there has been an explosion in the number of police officers stationed in schools—one of the most dramatic and clearly counterproductive expansions of police scope and power. In the 2013–14 academic year, there were more than forty-three thousand school-based police officers in the United States. Over 40 percent of all schools now have police officers assigned to them, 69 percent of whom engage in school discipline enforcement rather than just maintaining security and enforcing the law.

While the origins of “school resource officers” (SROs) can be traced back to the 1950s, there was a dramatic change in their number and focus in the 1990s, thanks in large part to the Justice Department’s “Cops in Schools” program, which gave out $750 million to hire 6,500 new school-based police. While many of these officers work hard to maintain a safe environment for students and to act as mentors and advisors, the overall approach of relying on armed police to deal with safety issues has led to a massive increase in arrests of students that fundamentally undermines the educational mission of schools, turning them into an extension of the larger carceral state and feeding what has come to be called the school-to-prison pipeline.

This increase in the number of school-based police is tied to a variety of social and political factors that converged in the 1990s and continues today. First, conservative criminologist John Dilulio, along with broken-windows theory author James Q. Wilson, argued in 1995 that the United States would soon experience a wave of youth crime driven by the crack trade, high rates of single-parent families, and a series of racially coded concerns about declining values and public morality. He predicted that by 2010 there would be an additional 270,000 of these youthful predators on the streets, leading to a massive increase in violent crime. He described these young people as hardened criminals: “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless . . . elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Dilulio and his colleagues argued that there was nothing to be done but to exclude such children from settings where they could harm others and, ultimately, to incarcerate them for as long as possible. Dilulio’s ideas were based on spurious evidence and ideologically motivated assumptions that turned out to be totally inaccurate. Every year since, juvenile crime in and out of schools in the US has declined.

However, the “superpredator” myth was extremely influential. It generated a huge amount of press coverage, editorials, and legislative action. One of the immediate consequences was a rash of new laws lowering the age of adult criminal responsibility, making it easier to incarcerate young people in adult jails, in keeping with the broader politics of incapacitation and mass incarceration. It was also at the center of efforts to tighten school discipline policies and increase police presence in schools.

The second major factor was the Columbine school massacre of 1999, in which two Colorado high school students murdered twelve classmates and a teacher, despite the presence of armed police on campus. This tragic incident received incredible attention due to its extreme nature and the fact that it occurred in a normally low-crime white suburban area. It was easy enough for middle-class families to ignore the more frequent outbursts of violence in nonwhite urban schools, but this incident drove them to want action taken to make schools safer for young people.

In keeping with the broader ethos of get-tough criminal-justice measures, the response was to increase the presence of armed police in schools rather than dealing with the underlying social issues of bullying, mental illness, and the availability of guns. While there was some focus on bullying, much of it took a punitive form, driving additional “zero tolerance” disciplinary procedures and further contributing to suspensions, expulsions, and arrests on flimsy evidence and for minor infractions.

The third major factor was the rise of neoliberal school reorganization, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, reduced budgets, and punitive disciplinary systems. Increasingly, schools are being judged almost exclusively based on student performance on standardized tests. Teacher pay, discretionary spending, and even the survival of the school are tied to these tests. This creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere in schools in which improving test scores becomes the primary focus, pitting teachers’ and administrators’ interests against those of students. A teacher or administrator who wants to keep their job or earn a bonus has an incentive to get rid of students who are dragging down test scores through low performance or behaviors that disrupt the performances of other students. This gives those schools a strong incentive to drive those students out, either temporarily through suspensions or permanently through expulsions or dropping out.

Excerpted from The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. Published in 2017 by Verso. © 2017. Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing & Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. His writings about policing have appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, USA Today, The Nation, and Vice News.