Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse
reviewed by Rachel Garver - June 04, 2012
The comparison between schools and prisons is no longer merely symbolic. Drug-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, fingerprinting, and police violence are becoming standard components of just a regular day at school. In Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse, journalist Annette Fuentes presents a comprehensive overview of the policies and practices that increasingly treat students like criminals and push them out of the schoolhouse into the jailhouse. The combination of these policies has emerged into what Fuentes calls the lockdown model of schooling.
Fuentes begins by reviewing the historical roots of the lockdown model and then lays out its various components: the implementation of zero-tolerance discipline policies and practices, the expansion of technologies to monitor and search students, the mandated drug testing of students, the for-profit industry benefiting from the lockdown model, and the increasing use of police in schools. Fuentes concludes optimistically with examples of community organizations and school districts that have begun to reform the lockdown model and curtail the school-to-prison pipeline.
By providing examples of struggles between pupils and instructors throughout U.S. history since the one-room schoolhouse, Fuentes seeks to normalize conflict at school. Despite claims of heightening violence, it is not student behavior that has changed over time but rather policy makers and school staffs reactions to it. Today the stakes are higher. Student misbehavior, which earned a strong talking-to in previous generations, can now result in arrest through the criminal justice paradigm applied in schools.
Citing numerous studies that clearly demonstrate that children are safer in schools than in their homes and neighborhoods, Fuentes is adamant that the publics obsession with school security unreasonably and illogically exceeds the concern warranted by the frequency and severity of school incidents. Fuentes points out that violent school incidents have been on a steady decline since the early 1990s. However, the media and political attention paid to a few extreme cases of school violence, most notably the 1999 Columbine school shootings, has served to justify a discourse that frames public schools as under attack. A culture of fear encouraged by the medias and policy makers responses to Columbine, and later, September 11th, served to legitimate the growth and expansion of the lockdown model of schooling in which students actions are closely monitored and harshly punished.
After this historical overview, each subsequent chapter addresses one prong of what Fuentes understands as the lockdown approach to schooling. The first component is zero-tolerance discipline policies and practices. This approach, under which students receive harsh and exclusionary sanctions for a range of infractions, was modeled after Bush-era criminal justice reforms and later codified in schools through the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 under Clinton. The Gun Free Schools Act required the expulsion of students who bring a gun to school; however, states and local school districts later expanded the range of behaviors warranting suspension or expulsion. What is most troubling to Fuentes is not the mandated suspension of students who bring drugs or guns to school, but rather the far larger number of discretionary cases in which a range of relatively minor infractions are assigned harsh sanctions. The growth in suspensions and expulsions is troubling considering that they are correlated with dropping out, and dropping out is linked to future incarceration. Under the pressures of standardized testing created by No Child Left Behind, zero-tolerance policies have been a tool to rid a school of low-performing students it is unprepared or unwilling to help. Moreover, harsh sanctions are disproportionately doled out to African American, male, and special education students, contributing to the overrepresentation of these populations in prisons.
The next component of the lockdown model Fuentes presents is the range of old and new technologies used to track and control students bodies. The more well-known metal detectors, bag scanners, and surveillance cameras are increasingly supplemented with apparatuses such as eye scanners and fingerprint recognition machines. These technologies not only aim to track student movement but are also increasingly being used to keep parents and other adults out of the school building. As these technologies more precisely monitor students and extract biometric data about them, schools warehouse information that may, Fuentes suggests, be violating students civil liberties. Fuentes explores one of these measures at length in the next chapter: drug tests. Aside from privacy concerns, drug testing is costly and unreliable and leaves undetected the one substance most likely to harm students: alcohol. In contrast, prevention programs that seek to educate students about drug use and responsible choices are not only comparatively cheap but also effective. Considering the problems of drug testing, Fuentes suggests that the interests of the drug testing industry largely drive the use of these invasive exams.
Accordingly, the turn to lockdown schooling despite falling rates of school violence is not only a reflection of changes in the criminal justice system but also promoted and upheld by a powerful network of for-profit companies that have much to earn from selling new surveillance and policing technologies to the large market of U.S. schools. The final prong of the lockdown model of schooling that Fuentes lays out is policing in schools. With the growing number of armed and unarmed officers in schools, conflicts increasingly result in the handcuffing and arrest of students because these are the practices that officers know best.
As policies that promoted the lockdown model were put in place and the budgets attached to them were established, the lockdown model of schooling took on a kind of path dependency. Where the funding existed, programs, policies, and the private sector inevitably followed. Despite these structural constraints, Fuentes concludes hopefully by introducing various efforts by community organizations and school districts to move away from the lockdown model of schooling. Through reforming discipline codes to lower the number of offenses that warrant suspension, introducing peer mediation and other restorative justice practices, and implementing positive behavior interventions and supports, student misbehavior may once again become a learning opportunity.
Lockdown High is a widely accessible overview of the trends in school discipline, surveillance, and policing. As such, Fuentes brings research in the education world to a broad audience and thereby widens the awareness of and potential resistance to the lockdown model. As a journalist, Fuentes seamlessly links detailed case studies to larger national trends and academic studies. The students she discusses may alone be considered isolated cases and insufficient to establish a trend, but they serve as rich illustrations that bring the national statistics to life. At the same time, interviews with parents, community advocates, and educators who support the lockdown model (even without a financial incentive) would have strengthened Fuentess critique. Why do some parents, students, and educators believe that policing and zero tolerance are the most effective responses to school safety concerns? By taking seriously those that support the lockdown model, Fuentes might be able to understand why it has become such a powerful approach. Addressing the counterarguments of students, parents, and educators who have nothing to profit from the lockdown model may have ultimately strengthened Fuentess position.
Although Fuentess findings may not be new to education and criminal justice scholars, she contributes to the literature by linking several areas that are often researched in isolation. The lockdown model is a comprehensive paradigm under which several trends in school discipline, policing, and drug prevention can be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing.