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Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear

reviewed by Anne Burns Thomas - February 14, 2014

coverTitle: Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear
Author(s): Aaron Kupchik
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 081474821X, Pages: 274, Year: 2012
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Most education policies are touted as emerging from a place of hope and reason: accountability in the form of nationalized curriculum, standardized tests, and uniformly high expectations claim to aim for the most positive outcomes for the greatest number of students through best practices and teacher education.  After deeper examination, however, it is clear that many of these policies are rooted in fear—fear of students, fear of failure, and fear of real and lasting change. As Aaron Kupchik argues in Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear, most recent “innovations” in school safety and discipline, such as the presence of full time police officers stationed in schools, extensive surveillance of students, and zero tolerance policies emerge from an overreaction to fears about violence in schools. Critical questions about the fairness and efficacy of school curriculum and instruction policies must extend to discipline policies in which young people are positioned as potential criminals in need of constant surveillance and the threat of legal punishment.  Kupchik’s book encourages pushing aside fear-based rhetoric and critiquing these policies while pushing toward new directions for safety in schools.  

Kupchik grounds his argument about increasingly harsh discipline regimes in an important, though often overlooked detail, “It might be tempting to assume that declines in school violence are due to changes in school discipline, but the existing evidence suggests that this assumption is false” (p. 15). If the current climate of getting tough on discipline does not match data about how and why school crime is lessening, why aren’t policy makers and administrators following the principles of data-driven reform and changing course or abandoning the policies altogether.  As a sociologist, Kupchik connects the lack of critical engagement about rigid discipline in schools to theories of how the school can be seen as a socializing arm of the state; students and parents come to see the presence of police and zero tolerance as the right course because it is the course endorsed by the school.  Kupchik questions the impact of severe discipline policies on a generation of students who may be socialized to expect an increased police presence in their lives without reflection.  Indeed, he began his research assuming that students would have strong negative opinions about these policies, especially about the police presence in high schools, but soon found that students did not question this rather recent development.  Kupchik believes “asking them if they like having a police officer in school might make as much sense to them as asking whether they like having a principal” (p. 104).  The progression to a “discipline regime” with police presence has become reality in American schools largely without public debate.  What impacts (intentional or unintentional) does this shift have on students, teachers, and societal expectations about what is being learned and taught in schools.

Using research conducted in four schools (a low-income and a middle-income high school in two different locations), Kupchik found interesting similarities in the ways that safety and discipline policies were implemented.  Based on prior research, he expected an increasingly punitive system of discipline at schools serving primarily minority and low-income students, but was surprised to find that “all four schools govern through crime in a way that is amazingly consistent, given the distinctions that one would expect to see among schools located in such very different areas” (p. 77).  Despite the standardized goals and systems, however, Kupchik’s research echoes numerous earlier studies, which have established that discipline strategies are not fairly or equitably implemented. This inequity serves to “compound the difficulties already faced by disadvantaged youth, especially low-income youth of color” (p. 191).  Although many of Kupchik’s examples demonstrate the continued inequity around school punishment, the general climate and culture of fear in school discipline is more the focus of this book, and the author refers the reader to alternative sources that deal more with inequity.  

If policies have been implemented that institutionalize fear and govern through crime and students have absorbed this as a norm, what of the teachers who are responsible for encouraging students to learn self-discipline and critically examine the culture of fear as it exists in schools?  Kupchik’s research reveals that teachers have become conditioned to believe that disciplining students is not their role, even to the extent that “teachers now deal exclusively with students’ minds and security forces with students’ bodies” (p. 98).  This false dichotomy exposes the root problem with fear-based approaches to discipline, for what is the purpose of trying to reach a student’s mind when the student’s body is under threat?  In a chilling tale, Kupchik relates the story of an adolescent male who was arrested by police forces overreacting to a minor offense after refusing to turn his baseball cap brim from the side to the front.  What should the response of teachers be to this blatantly unfair arrest based in stereotypes and racism?  Should teachers at this school remain neutral because the arrest doesn’t deal with the subject matter, which they were assigned to teach?  Should teachers support the school’s discipline policy because the young man was dressed in a way that violated the school dress code?  In the chapter entitled “Teaching to the Rules,” Kupchik highlights the ways that current policies such as zero tolerance run counter to the stated intention of schools, because behavior change or solving students’ problems are subsumed by efforts to enforce the rules and the school’s authority.  His research uncovers examples that are all too familiar: administrators and teachers exhorting students to behave in certain ways because those are the rules while opportunities to help and/or counsel students remain unrealized.

If the creation of schools where students can learn in safety is the goal of policies around school discipline, then clearly Kupchik has demonstrated that the very real dangers to students caused by the current discipline climate outweigh potential benefits.  Yet as clear as these dangers seem, and as particularly damaging to low-income and minority youth, school administrators, teachers, students, and the public remain firmly supportive of zero tolerance policies, police presence in schools, and increased surveillance of young people while in school.  Kupchik argues for a reversal of course in favor of the development of democratic policies that involve youth in the creation and maintenance of safety and discipline in schools.  The trend of fear-based policies must be reversed, so that the socializing powers of school can be harnessed to engage students in a new kind of regime that honors more than the rhetoric of hope and possibility.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17434, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:19:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Anne Burns Thomas
    SUNY College, Cortland
    E-mail Author
    ANNE BURNS THOMAS is an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department in the School of Education at SUNY College at Cortland. Additionally, she is the coordinator of Cortland's Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E) program, a comprehensive program in urban education to prepare qualified teachers for the challenges of working in high need urban schools in New York state. A former middle school English teacher in Philadelphia, her research interests include the nature of support for new teachers in urban schools, alternative certification programs and teacher research.
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