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Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School

reviewed by Aaron Kupchik - December 22, 2011

coverTitle: Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School
Author(s): Kathleen Nolan & Paul Willis
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 0816675538, Pages: 232, Year: 2011
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A growing number of research monographs, reports from research and advocacy organizations, and journal articles have begun to document the harms of contemporary school policing and disciplinary practices. Within this literature, Police in the Hallways shines as a groundbreaking study into how students experience this punitive regime. As research for this book, Nolan observed “Urban Public High School” (UPHS) for a school year, interviewed dozens of students, deans, teachers, security officers, and other school officials, and spent time with students outside of schools so as to better understand how policing and other forms of school discipline fit within their lives. The result is an extraordinarily rich ethnography that produces insight into two primary areas: the workings of school discipline and policing, and students’ oppositional behaviors.

Consistent with prior research, Nolan finds that a zero tolerance disciplinary approach can harm students. UPHS is an “impact school” in the Bronx, meaning that it had been designated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration as one of the most violent, disorderly schools in New York City, and infused with additional police officers beyond its standard allotment of police officers and NYPD-supervised School Safety Agents. She describes in vivid detail how UPHS students are over-policed to the extent that the security apparatus itself gives rise to much of the criminal behavior for which students are arrested.  This happens in various ways, such as arrests for minor offenses that in years past would have been dealt with only as a school discipline matter, or when students’ complaints about unfair treatment and harassment by the police are defined as disorderly conduct (an arrestable offense). As a result, a culture of control permeates the school to the extent that policing takes precedence over education, and the school resembles a criminal justice institution. In her words, the school “had become a kind of auxiliary penal institution in which some of the city’s most marginalized youth spent their days under heavy police surveillance” (p. 5). As Nolan describes in vivid detail, students feel this punitive climate, perceive it to be unfair, and resent it.

The second primary contribution of Police in the Hallways is Nolan’s thoughtful analysis of how students respond to their environment through oppositional behavior. These behaviors are most commonly seen in the form of minor transgressions such as cutting class, causing disruptions in the hallways, or breaking the school’s rule prohibiting baseball hats. Nolan illustrates how oppositional behaviors make sense when one considers the totality of the lives of these students.  They face poverty, racial and social isolation, and bleak academic and professional outlooks, in addition to being forced to pass through metal detectors, exist under the constant guise of police, and being treated like criminals while at school. Given these challenges, oppositional behaviors help UPHS students in their struggles to achieve valued identities, to regain a sense of autonomy, to manage the threat of violence, and to protest the unfairness of how they are treated both at school and by the police in their communities.  In my opinion, her explanation of these behaviors is the most novel, substantial and impressive contribution of this text.

My one concern with Nolan’s analysis regards her treatment of school administrators and deans of students (who teach part-time and perform school discipline part-time). Nolan argues that deans and administrators attempt to subvert the criminal justice-oriented discipline that pervades the school; they do so by implementing culturally-relevant discipline such as counseling, parental contact, conflict mediation, and problem-solving, rather than just policing and punishment, in response to student misconduct. Their efforts are eventually limited by the overarching penal framework within which the school operates, but Nolan clearly sees them as trying hard to undo some negative aspects of punitive school discipline. Yet her evidence for this forgiving interpretation of deans’ and administrators’ actions is based primarily on what they say in interviews, not on observations of how they act towards students.  In contrast, her rich field notes illustrate how deans and administrators seem to accept and practice punitive discipline and strict policing. The deans often practice “tough love” guided by the beliefs that experiences with police may teach youth valuable lessons, and that in order to help students one must force them to take personal responsibility for their actions and choices.  Thus the deans see value in punitive, counterproductive and poorly conceived policies that disempower students, and place the burden of these policies solely on the backs of students. More importantly, despite what deans and administrators may state, their actions as described in Police in the Hallways suggest that they have accepted and apply the policing mentality that Nolan criticizes throughout the book.

To be fair, it is very difficult to reconcile the observations that school staff are well-meaning, sense the injustice that is being done to youth, and care deeply about students, with the fact that they participate in and help to perpetuate a carceral regime in schools. They are good people who do bad things. And as a former high school teacher in the Bronx herself, Nolan may identify with these research subjects. But by my reading of her evidence, her treatment of this sensitive issue might rely more on her sympathy for former peers – who are indeed in a difficult situation – than on the weight of the evidence that she presents. Perhaps her background as a teacher helps Nolan to understand how deans and administrators subvert the carceral regime in schools in ways that others, like myself, don’t see. But if this is so, then it is critical that this be illustrated with greater evidence.

In sum, Police in the Hallways makes an important and novel contribution to the literatures on urban education, school discipline, policing, and the experiences of socially, academically, and economically marginalized youth. Nolan’s work is deep and complex: it is informed by observations of and conversations with students, school staff, and police; she takes into account students’ experiences both in school and in their communities; and she uses her analyses to develop sound proposals for how to improve school policy. In addition to making an impressive contribution to scholarship, this text offers an extremely well-researched, thorough analysis that will engage both undergraduate and graduate students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 22, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16635, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 9:21:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Aaron Kupchik
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    AARON KUPCHIK is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. His research focuses on policing and punishment of juveniles in schools, courts, and correctional facilities. He has published four books, including Homeroom Security: School discipline in an age of fear (NYU Press, 2010), and Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting adolescents in adult and juvenile courts (NYU Press, 2006), winner of the 2007 American Society of Criminology Michael J. Hindelang Book Award.
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