Increasing Governance, Punishment, and Control: Poor Choices for Schools and the Youth they Serve

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Often marked by a heightened consciousness of crime, today’s communities have been gripped by a profound sense of insecurity. Scholars have frequently argued that ideas of risk and uncertainty have become central organizing principles; so much so that they are now structuring social institutions. Consequently, crime control practices and policies have made predicting, identifying, and effectively managing behaviors that signal risk a central objective. A growing literature demonstrates that this need for efficiency, safety, and security has also transformed governance within schools. The actions of youth at school have increasingly become governed by two systems of control – that of the school and now, the criminal justice apparatus.

Blurring the Lines Between School Discipline and Criminal Punishment

Over the past few decades, schools have experienced increased social, economic, and political pressure with the creation of policies like the No Child Left Behind Act, the Youth Crime Watch, and the Safe Schools Act (Simon, 2007). Perhaps more pressing, internal events (such as school shootings) or external factors (like perceived rates of youth violence) have begun reshaping school operations. Risk and uncertainty – as a real part of the school experience – has now become a chief organizing principle shaping school discipline and security. The distinction between school discipline and criminal punishment has become less clear. Teachers, once serving as the initial point of contact for behavioral enforcement, have increasingly come to outsource classroom discipline and punishment to professional security. Appendages of criminal justice like zero tolerance policies, metal detectors, police officers, surveillance cameras, drug dogs, and high-tech security systems have increasingly become a mainstay within schools.

Though intended to enhance conditions, these safety and security initiatives within school indirectly promote new, more invasive, forms of youth governance that are associated with a host of negative outcomes. Research demonstrates that higher levels of punitive discipline and invasive security measures are associated with:

  • Higher drop-out/retention rates
  • Diminished levels of student involvement
  • Negative perceptions of the school environment
  • Lower performance metrics
  • Greater levels of punishment disproportionality

Further, contemporary disciplinary practices have been argued to facilitate a school-to-prison pipeline – a process in which (predominantly) racial/ethnic minority youth are placed into the hands of the criminal justice system rather than being punished within the educational system.

A Microcosm of Larger Conditions

The intensified form of governance that has permeated the school setting is a microcosm of larger conditions. The anxiety surrounding crime has progressively influenced all aspects of life. This has ushered in rigid regulatory practices that attempt to minimize risk and danger. Youth now face unprecedented levels of governance, punishment, and control in ways that are historically peculiar to educational settings. According to Jonathan Simon, a professor at Berkley Law, “when a problem for 10% of schools becomes a paradigm for all, it is the mark of the hold of crime over our contemporary political imagination” (2007: 213).

Recommendations to Address Negative Effects of Punitive and Exclusionary Punishment Practices

In 2012, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing regarding school discipline and the consequent school-to-prison pipeline. The intent of the hearing was to address the negative effects of punitive and exclusionary punishment practices. Since, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has been investigating school-based punishment violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The pressure for schools to understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair practices has led to disciplinary reforms. Designing these reforms with the intention of keeping kids in school and out of the hands of criminal justice. As a result, legislatures and school officials are beginning to reform policies regarding how to best respond to student misconduct. To facilitate disciplinary reform, the Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, has developed a series of publications outlining the best practices for minimizing and responding to disciplinary problems in school.  These recommendations state that schools should:

  • Create safe, inclusive, and positive school climates
  • Provide students with evidence-based and tiered support systems
  • Provide clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences; and
  • Utilize continuous monitoring and self-evaluation practices.

In conclusion, the end goal of these efforts is to reduce unequal applications of punishment, support and reinforce positive behavior and character development. To promote student success via conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling strategies, and structured systems of positive interventions. These reform efforts are more hopeful strategies for addressing perceived risk and uncertainty in the school environment. They are likely to loosen the criminal justice system’s grip on schools and the youth they serve.

By: John Brent, Associate Professor, School of Justice Studies

*Note: The above was adapted from previous work published by the corresponding author.

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“Joint ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter”. The U.S. Department of Education, January 8, 2014,          

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